The Girl Who Played With Fire
By Stieg Larsson. Viking Canada, 503 pp, $32, hardcover
Here at last is the follow-up to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, that sprawling, expertly plotted crime novel by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, published in English last fall to great success. This new book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is in most ways as gripping as the previous one. It’s also as likely to sell by the bargeload, which only sharpens the injustice that Larsson died suddenly five years ago, long before his series and its razor-edged heroine, Lisbeth Salander, became an international phenomenon.
The Sweden portrayed in this second installment is just as we left it: furnished by IKEA and awash in strong coffee and no-strings sex. And, of course, brutal misogyny. You’d be hard-pressed to find villains as ardently woman-hating as those in Larsson’s fiction. Fortunately for Sweden, and for us, their malice is offset by the dogged, law-skirting brilliance of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the computer-hacking Salander, a tiny, humourless, hobnailed genius with a photographic memory and a gift for devastating violence. As one character familiar with her puts it: “Don’t ever fight with Lisbeth Salander. Her attitude towards the rest of the world is that if someone threatens her with a gun, she’ll get a bigger gun.”
This time, they’re up against a ring of sex traffickers with ties to everyone from bikers to the Swedish secret police. The complex gears of the story take a little longer to engage than did those of Dragon Tattoo, but once the machine starts rolling—with the murder of a couple who had been trying to expose the ring—it runs on Larsson’s uncanny talent for large casts and ricocheting plot turns. Cops, reporters, and private security agents jostle and double-cross one another on the case, while at the edges hover two incarnations of evil: a blond giant plagued by monstrous hallucinations, and a shadowy arch-demon whose mere name has the power to terrify hardened criminals.
In the middle of it all is Salander, both hunted and hunter, embodying the rage of all those abused by this purportedly enlightened society. It can be difficult at times to identify with a character so numb from personal trauma that she rarely seems to feel fear, no matter how towering her opponent. But there’s no question she’ll endure as the legacy of a hugely skilled author who left us much too soon.