The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is back, this time in pursuit of a ring of human traffickers who are forcing women into prostitution. An idealistic reporter approaches his magazine "Millennium" with a killer story. He and his girlfriend are planning to release a report on the sex crimes industry in Sweden. Not only will the report detail the horror of these crimes, it will also expose the identities of police officers, judges, and politicians involved. It will also discuss a mysterious figure known only as "Zala" who is the mastermind behind the operation. "Millennium" plans to publish an issue dedicated to it, as well as publish a book that will out the names. But before the book can be published, the authors are brutally murdered, and Salander is accused of the crime. The police are hunting her while Blomkvist tries to find the truth and clear her name.
This is a very different book from the first novel, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." "Tattoo" was a dark and twisted mystery, mainly set on a remote island, dealing with grisly murder. At times, it felt like a horror novel along the lines of "Red Dragon" or "Silence of the Lambs." Readers of "Dragon's Tattoo" will probably go into this looking for a taut and gripping mystery. That's not what they get. The killer is revealed earlier on, a blond giant with a resistance to pain. The only mystery is the identity of Zala, but it's not a mystery that the main characters are even pursuing for most of the novel. This novel is more of a traditional thriller.
The feel of "Fire" is also much different. Most of this novel takes place in the city of Stockholm. It doesn't have the claustrophobic horror of the first novel. There's more police procedure with a team of detectives trying to track down Salander. Along the way, they dig deeper into Salander's past while Salander and Blomkvist try to get one step ahead of them. We find out some of the trauma that led to her emotional problems, and also discover she has a shocking connection to the man behind the slavery ring. There's also some political intrigue as Blomkvist's investigation of Zala leads to a government conspiracy.
Most of the familiar characters from the last novel are here, including the return of Advokat Bjurman, who Salander tortured and tattooed in the last novel. It turns out he's dedicated himself to avenging himself on Salander. Unfortunately, his plans don't go as he expects.
This is a good novel, but not as good as "Dragon Tattoo." Besides the lack of mystery, there's also a lack of Salander, who was the big star of the last novel. She spends most of the novel hiding from the police. While her fugitive status should be a source of tension, it's not. In the early stages, she finds an apartment which she rents in another name that the police don't know about, so she's untraceable. No car chases, no close calls. She just sits in her apartment, surfing the Internet, eating frozen pizza, and reading about how people are chasing her. Though Salander isn't as involved in the story, her moments are dynamite. She does a lot of sleuthing with her hacker skills, trying to help Blomkvist and find Zala. There's also a scene where she faces down two huge bikers, and comes out a winner. But Blomkvist is clearly more the hero in this novel, and he's just not as interesting to me as Salander.
I would also argue this novel has a lot of the same flaws as "Dragon's Tattoo," which desperately needed editing. There's a similar lack of focus as the last one. While there aren't as many sandwiches in this novel, we do get an exhaustive amount of information about Apple computers, Swedish politics, police work, and geography. One particularly memorable section where Salander goes to an IKEA store reads like a catalog as the author details the name and model of every stick of furniture she buys. There's also a scene where one of the detectives meticulously sweeps the dead couple's apartment for clues, cataloguing everything in every drawer and every pocket of the clothes he finds. Interesting to a point, but way beyond what we need to know for the story.
The opening of the novel is also unnecessary, dealing with Salander traveling the world on the ill-gotten gains she stole in "Dragon Tattoo." We read about Salander lounging on the beach in the Caribbean, having an affair with an underage boy (but she's a woman, so it's okay), and her suspicions about the couple in the hotel room next door to her. That subplot about the couple leads to its own conclusion which never comes up again, making it more like a short story than an actual part of the novel. You could have cut that whole section out, sold it as a separate novella "The Girl With the Sunburned Tattoo," and it wouldn't have changed a thing.
There are also more chapters about how incredibly attractive Blomkvist is, including a whole subplot about how a new intern at "Millennium" is desperately trying to seduce him, which doesn't factor into the plot at all. Poor Blomkvist moans about how frustrating it is for a hot teenage girl to be banging on his front door at night. Yes, Mikael Bonkvist is in full effect. Pretty much any female in the story is either sleeping with him or wants to sleep with him. Since Blomkvist is clearly a stand-in for the author, a fun game is to replace "Mikael Blomkvist" with "Stieg Larsson" and it makes his gushing praise even more ridiculous.
Let's also mention that Salander gets breast implants, which a lot of readers who enjoyed the feminist theme of the first novel found upsetting. It's a controversial move, but not surprising. Larsson was so focused on her small breasts in the last novel that it seems he simply couldn't handle writing another novel about a woman who doesn't have huge boobs. Certainly all the other women in the novel do.
The novel ends with a cliffhanger, leading to the third novel. But this book is still worth reading, even with its flaws.
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