The Girl that played with fire


Author: Stieg Larsson

Translated by: Reg Keeland

Knopf, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

[Spoiler warning: The premise of this novel and this review of it rely on a few minor plot points from Larsson’s previous book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If you’re planning to read Dragon Tattoo, think twice about reading this review. If you’ve already read it, or you want to skip to Played with Fire, then go right ahead.]

When I read Larsson’s first novel in this series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found it to be a riveting 200-page thriller… wrapped in an extra 250 pages of setup, exposition, and boredom.

The opening of Played with Fire has much more promise. Larsson doesn’t spend as much time setting up his characters in this installment, and instead he gives us a couple of hooks to pull the narrative forward while he lays the foundation for a new plot. Lisbeth Salander (Larsson’s tough-as-nails, pint-sized hacker heroine) is being pursued by the sadistic rapist whom she’s been blackmailing, and the prologue mentions a young girl held captive somewhere.

Unfortunately, Larsson never really makes good on the suspense he builds in the novel’s beginning. Instead of a satisfying story arc, he uses manipulative tricks to stretch out a relatively simple plot. He cuts away from action to build false tension, he creates mystery by withholding information from the reader, and he can bore you with bad writing at any moment. Essentially, Larsson is the Swedish Dan Brown.

To make matters worse, Larsson actually has talent. You can see it in glimpses here and there, but ultimately Larsson’s lack of discipline (and lack of a good editor) turns what could be a taut mystery into a sloppy, meandering revenge tale.

If you liked Larsson’s first book, you’ll probably like this one for the same reasons. It’s a quick read, too, for 500 pages, and I found it more consistently entertaining than Dragon Tattoo. Just don’t expect the best mystery you’ve ever read, like the hype says. In fact, it’s probably best not to expect a mystery at all.

The “mystery” of the book hinges on an incident from Salander’s past code-named “All The Evil.” This is mentioned early on and throughout the novel. Salander knows exactly what it is the entire time, and simply doesn’t tell us, which makes for a awkward, frustrating reading experience.

Seemingly to make the act of her not telling what she knows less obtrusive, Larsson just makes her disappear for large chunks of the narrative. That’s a real shame, because she continues to be my favorite of Larsson’s characters. She’s the only one who surprises me (though much of her ability to surprise comes from an Asperger’s-like disorder—I’ll take it).

To a greater extent than Dragon Tattoo, then, this is Blomkvist’s story. Blomkvist is the stubborn, persecuted journalist whose magazine, Millenium, is his forum for exposing the corruption and evil he hunts down. Larsson was the editor-in-chief of a similar “antiracist” magazine for many years, so it’s little wonder that Blomkvist is the hero.

Blomkvist is also, unfortunately, supremely boring. In the movie version of this book, I would cast Pierce Brosnan or an older Bradley Cooper-type in the Blomkvist role. In other words, a spiritless, ostensibly charming bore.

My big problem with Blomvkist is that he’s a Good Guy. All Larsson’s characters are either Good Guys or Bad Guys. Good Guys have no faults; they never betray or hurt each other, or do less than the most noble thing in any given situation. Even the affair Blomkvist has with another editor at Millenium is accepted and actually condoned by her husband.

Bad Guys, on the other hand, never show the slightest shred of decency, except maybe when it’s a transparent plea for mercy after they’ve been caught at their terrible deeds. And their deeds are terrible: 95% of the Bad Guys are rapists, murderers, and child molestors. The other 5% are merely corrupt assholes who enable rape, murder, and molestation.

For a while, Larsson dances around an exploration of sexuality and gender identity. For example, Salander’s lesbian girlfriend is into light S&M; for some of the detectives working the case, the line between that and the more sadistic interests of the Bad Guys gets a little hazy.

Unfortunately, it’s never hazy for Larsson, and never hazy for his two-dimensional primary characters. And so, in the end, Larsson uses this array of sexualities and proclivities not to explore them, but merely to lay out his personal ethos.

There are many other minor annoyances as well. Larsson—as he did in Dragon Tattoo—often wastes pages chronicling when characters wake up and when they go to sleep, what they get at the grocery store, how big their computers’ hard drives are, and so on and so on. For example:

Frustrated, she stumbled into bed and slept for twelve hours straight. When she woke it was 11:00 a.m. She put on coffee and ran a bath in the Jacuzzi. She poured in bubble bath and brought coffee and sandwiches for breakfast.

You could cut out thirty pages’ worth of this stuff and not lose a thing. And those thirty pages would be much better used in tying up the half dozen or so plot threads that Larsson leaves dangling at the end of the novel, when he bizarrely sprints for the exit after plodding along sedately for 480 pages.

Larsson’s dialogue is still pedantic, used mostly to convey information and very rarely for any kind of character exploration. It often reminded me of Dragnet: just the facts. Sometimes, mostly with minor characters, we get a glimpse of a real person, or a few lines of dialogue that are amusing in and of themselves. But it seems that Larsson’s not willing to take chances with his main characters. He wants them to live out his ideals so badly that he makes them flatly idealistic, and hence wooden and boring.

Despite this, the story ticks along well enough; Larsson’s a better plotter than he is a writer. At times it can be engrossing and maybe even riveting, despite all the false trails and abandoned subplots he lays down.

But finally, Larsson lets his ethos dictate the shape and meaning of his novel, and that means we wind up with a revenge fantasy instead of a mystery or anything resembling reality.

The shame is that Larsson has the talent, but evidently not the technique, to have made it much more.

Similar reads: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; the Burke series, by Andrew Vachss; The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown