Tour’s Books Blog

December 1, 2009

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

  • Title: The Girl Who Played With Fire
  • Author: Stieg Larsson
  • Type: Mystery
  • Genre: Complex multi-character story; investigative journalist
  • Sub-genre: Social commentary on sex trade, social injustice and corrupt political systems
  • My Grade: B- (3.8*)
  • Rating: PG-13 to NC-17
  • Length and price: Plus novel; over 100,000 words
  • Where Available: any bookstore
  • FTC Disclosure: ARC acquired from an online book swapping site

In September I reviewed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and commented on the how the book was used as platform for social commentary on various facets of corruption within Sweden’s social systems.  In The Girl Who Played With Fire it is a combination of morally corrupt people and fundamentally flawed systems that created the tragedy that forever changed Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo.  As with Dragoon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire seems less a true mystery than a kind of vehicle for the author to explore his take on the failure of the various social and protective services in Sweden through greed, corruption and indifference.

The book opens with two separate stories.  First is a sort of abbreviated tale of Lisbeth Salander’s activities since the end of Dragon Tattoo, including an interesting bit on her time on the island of Gernada.  The other story is that of Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist at the center of Dragon Tattoo and his crusading Millennium magazine.  Finally, Lisbeth comes back to Sweden and begins to make sense of her life.  The year has seen external changes, from breast implants to removal of many body piercings and the wasp tattoo on her neck.  Even she realizes that she has, in some fundamental way, changed from what she was before.  Lisbeth remains paranoid about everything and still can’t connect emotionally, but she different.

After an incident on Grenada where she knocked out a man to rescue his wife from being killed as a supposed victim of a hurricane, Lisbeth returns to Sweden.  The time lines jump around a bit and backtrack to prior events and I found it all somewhat annoying to read, but once the stage is set, the story moves along.  While Lisbeth was off getting medical treatments then bumming around the world, Mikael Blomkvist is reestablishing Millennium magazine with his sometime married lover, business partner, and the Millennium editor, Erika Berger.  Mikael tries repeatedly to contact Lisbeth over the year, leaving voice mails, emails, even going to her apartment to try and get her see him.  He still regards her as a friend and remains uncertain of why she so completely cut him from her life.

Freelance writer Dag Svensson comes to Mikael with a story – an expose of the sex trade in Sweden.  His longtime live in lover Mia Johansson is doing her PhD on the gender roles in the sex trade and victimization of women, and how police, courts and government agencies turn a blind eye to what’s happening, despite the laws against such activities. He’s spent nearly 3 years researching the sex trade in Sweden, especially as it pertains to underage girls.  Expecting to find a splashy American style Mafia don type running the operation, he instead finds the crime equivalent of mom and pop operations run by none to bright but immensely violent thugs.  Small time operations involving mostly girls brought in from various Baltic countries and forced into the sex slave trade.  He’s spent years putting together a vast amount of information that implicates the participation of police and judiciary in the system failures, as well as their active use of these prostitutes.  Mikael and Erika agree to Svensson’s proposal after reviewing his work.

The corrupt Advokat Bjurman, the official state appointed Guardian of Lisbeth who repeatedly raped and abused her till she managed to turn the tables on him, has been suffering from her revenge.  The tattoo she put on his stomach, “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST” has effectively ended any sex life he could have.  The continuing humiliation, and the psychological impact of being under her thumb, more than chafes him.  He has the need the strike back – hard.  He thinks he’s hiding his activities, but when Lisbeth comes back to Sweden she pays him a visit and tells him not to try and get the tattoo removed.  The anger and fear at her control over him boils over and with one phone call to a violent man, he sets into motion all that follows.

The two stories follow separate paths, seemingly not connecting, until three murders occur.  The bodies of Mia and Svensson are found by Mikael, shot dead in their apartment just moments before his arrival.  The gun he finds in the stairwell has the fingerprints of two people, Bjurman and Lisbeth Salander.  Mikael refuses to believe Lisbeth would ever kill those to people.  She might kill, but not without great cause, and she had no cause to kill them.  Then Bjurman’s body is found, apparently the first victim, and the police are convinced its her.  It takes to page 170 in the ARC for the murders to occur, so this isn’t exactly a fast moving story as the various threads of the plot get woven together interspersed with a long set of observations and commentary on violence against women, rape, and the persistent failure of the government and its representatives to act responsibly and ethically.

As more and more facts begin unfolding, about Lisbeth’s past, about Bjurman’s activities, and about a policeman that Svensson had been trying to track down to confront about his involvement with underage prostitutes, Jan Bublanski, the policeman in charge of the case, is less and less certain that Salander is the killer.  Prosecutor Ekström opposes him and again, it’s only Bublanski’s willingness to fight him that allows the investigation to move along.  It makes strange allies of Bublandski and Blomkvist.

Mikael isn’t sure of much, but he is sure Lisbeth didn’t murder the young couple, and he’s also sure someone is after Lisbeth to kill her and that may, or may not be related to the murders.  He’s stunned to lean how much money Lisbeth seems to have, a girl who lived on the edge of poverty is now living in a penthouse apartment formerly occupied by the CEO of a major corporation.  The systematic failure of the social system – and the reasons and players behind it – are all centered on one person, Lisbeth Salander.  Then he’s horrified by the DVD of what Bjurman did to Lisbeth.  It explains a lot – but not everything.  It’s Mikael’s sheer doggedness that eventually leads him to a farm and the final denouement.

Just as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had at its heart the story of sexual abuse, so does The Girl Who Played With Fire.  That and the failure of the very systems setup to prevent the abuses from happening is the same theme here, and back again.  Just as Andrew Vachss focuses on the grim realities of child abuse, Stieg Larsson focuses on sexual abuse and exploitation of women, especially teen girls, and the tragic flaws of the vaunted Swedish social safety net.  In print, the hard cover is 569 pages.  The ARC I read was 514.  Much of this was not so much mystery as it was a vehicle for the author to explore a topic of deep concern to him.  Dragon Tattoo explored the damage of incest and spousal abuse, and with Plays With Fire you have a government appointed advokat, Bjurman, abuse of his position over Lisbeth.  Lisbeth gets her revenge against the man who turned her into the woman who hates men who abuse women, but at a great personal cost.

The Girl Who Played With Fire was overlong, somewhat choppy at times, had a few too many story threads dangling – likely the seeds for book 3 in the series – and too many characters with extraneous stories cluttering up the central plot.  That’s the best word I can think of, cluttered.  Once again I’m left bemused at the lack of focus, almost to the point where the reader loses the plot.  I think in some ways, this was a better book that Dragon Tattoo, but those expecting a another original perspective on the dark side of human nature, it will be rather disappointing.  Certainly it’s not the tight prose or lean style normally associated with reporters turned novelists. Also, the whole corverup aspect of the plot has a ‘been there, done that’ feel to it, so it lacks punch.  Everyone who’s read spy novels knew what was going down and had much of the story figured out, but there was one element at the very end even I didn’t see coming.

I rather think Played With Fire might have benefited from more aggressive editing or the many various sub-plots without sacrificing the impact of the core story.  Did I really need to know that Erika Berger liked threesomes with her husband and got off on watching him with another man?  Not that I care, but jeeze, how many details do I need?  Were her ruminations on her large sexual appetite germane to the murders and the stonewalling of government agencies?  No, it’s an example of how Larsson uses the book to express his views on society’s double standards for women.  The editorials do get annoying.

Again, the slow start to the pace and the pulling together of the many threads of the plot evolve slowly.  The seemingly endless build up and anther slow 100 or so pages finally begin to yield pay dirt in a rapidly increase in the pace of the last 200+ pages.  I can see why the audience for this book changed.  The surprise factor associated with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is gone leaving a slightly boring ‘hero’ in plodding but loyal Mikael Blomkvist and a not very likable but still interesting ‘heroine’ Lisbeth Salander.  The Girl Who Played With Fire is a decent read, but not a great mystery.  It isn’t even a good mystery.  It’s a novel that has murders and mystery as part of its plot.  Bring you patience, you’ll need it.  Wait for the paperback.

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