Lisbeth Rises Again

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second of the three novels that make up Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. It picks up where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo left off.

In Fire we learn more about Lisbeth Salander, the computer hacker with the mysterious past who spoke of a turning point in her life as a time when ‘All The Evil’ occurred, resulting in her placement in a psychiatric facility.

‘All The Evil’ is disclosed here amidst multiple interstices in a complex web of intrigue involving human trafficking in Sweden, political corruption, the impact of the closing of mental hospitals on the crime rate, and all that he believes to be bad about Swedish society.  You sense from the start that the story is a puzzle when it begins by explaining how to solve algebraic equations which, as it turns out, is Lisbeth’s latest hobby.

When the story begins, Blomkvist has lost track of Lisbeth, who—for some reason unknown to Blomkvist—wants nothing to do with him. Lisbeth, not one to trust easily, was left heartbroken unwittingly by Blomkvist at the end of Dragon Tattoo, and isn’t about to leave herself open to hurt ever again. And the two never do touch base in any meaningful way through most of the novel. In fact, they are reunited only in the last three paragraphs following a riveting denouement that calls up images from The Walking Dead and provides a bizarre twist on a theme of death and resurrection. The ending makes compulsory reading of the third, and final, installment.

Blomkvist gets involved in her life again, indirectly, when a journalist and his wife are murdered. Also murdered is the court-appointed guardian, Bjurman, who abused Salander so brutally in Dragon Tattoo, and then was subsequently brutalized by her and kept at bay with a tape she had made of him raping her. Finally, he had turned to a man from Salander’s past to free him of her grip. A man who, unfortunately for Salander, does not officially exist.

A gun is found at the scene of the crime with Salander’s fingerprints on it, and soon a nationwide hunt for the girl—whom newspapers dubbed a crazed, psychotic killer—is under way. Blomkvist is certain that she had no reason to commit the crimes against the two journalists (although the murder of Bjurman gives him pause), and he sets out to prove it. His theory: the journalists were preparing to publish stories about the sex trade in Sweden, and this was the motive for their deaths.  His investigation brings him into a world of human traffickers who recruit biker gangs in their process of intimidation, and into a plot that leaves you guessing from page to page until the pieces all begin to fall into place.

Gone are the brutal sex scenes that punctuated Dragon Tattoo, replaced with sometimes plodding detail of the police investigation and the various personality conflicts that occur among the task force members, the prosecuting attorney, and the members of the security firm that once employed Salander. Yet, the details are important—indeed Larsson thrives on details—so one should resist the temptation to skim past them.

Salander, true to form, is out to fight her own battles and only reluctantly shares information with Blomkvist by means of messages left on his hard drive, which she had hacked into years earlier (something he never bothered to remedy for some reason). This is their only means of communication, but no matter how hard he tries he is unable to elicit little except curious, inadequate, and sometimes pathetic replies.

In the process of investigating the crimes, Blomkvist learns about ‘All The Evil’ that Salander alludes to without explication in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and realizes that she is truly dangerous, but only to those who would harm her or someone whom she cares about (a very small group of people, as it turns out). He also learns that Bjurman was appointed her guardian for a reason by a man who has a great deal of influence in high places and has a very good reason for wanting to rid the world of Salander. Who that man is is one of the biggest surprises in the novel.

Once again, the convoluted plot is not what holds your attention. What captivates is the character of Lisbeth Salander, who fascinates for some reason that has to fall into the category of primal. She is, Blomkvist tells the police, a woman with a strong moral fiber, which only confuses them based on what the media is saying. Further confusing the authorities is that anyone who ever knew her closely—her former employer at the security agency, her former guardian (who is slowly recovering from a stroke), and Blomkvist himself—describe her as being strange but highly intelligent and more centered than anyone would ever have guessed.

One hint of Larsson’s writing skill is evident in the fact that we see Salander begin to mature, as some of the piercings come out and as she even has one tattoo removed. She is more confident, for some reason, and is growing in grace, strength, and self-assurance. But she is still dangerous.

The book, like Dragon Tattoo, is long—more than 500 pages; and, even though it sometimes gets bogged down in the details of a convoluted investigation, it is a compelling read that continues to answer the question on the minds of anyone who has read this far: “Who, exactly, is Lisbeth Salander, and what made her the way she is?”

Larsson died in 2004 of a heart attack and never knew that his three novels, which were delivered just before his death, would become international best sellers (Fire was first published in 2009). What a shame. But he left us with one of the more intriguing mysteries yet in print, at least in my opinion, and unquestionably one of the most memorable protagonists.

Copyright Isaac Morris 01/04/2012

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