The Girl Who Played With Fire – Steig Larsson (2009)

The second in Larsson’s now globally famous post-humous Millenium trilogy sees the continuation of the stories of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist who starred in the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This second instalment however concentrates more on Salander and introduces a significant cast of police characters as well. Another massive book, 569 pages, TGWPWF (I’m not going to type the full title again and again!) has as one starting point an investigation into the sex-trafficking industry by a couple of researchers who bring their story to Blomkvist.

The first thing to be noted about TGWPWF is that it is extremely important to read it in proper order, after Dragon Tattoo.; characters and plot-developments can only be properly and fully understood if you do so, but beyond this it is very clear that Larsson planned the development with considerable care (whether this will continue in the third book I obviously do not know but it is a reasonable guess). Having said this I have to admit to some disappointment with TGWPWF after Dragon Tattoo and there is one very important difference between the two books. At the very heart of the first as far as plot was concerned there was a whodunit; if not a locked-room it was to a certain extent a locked-island mystery. In this second book there is no such element – the reader is reasonably clear – certainly much clearer than the characters – about what has happened. Certainly Larsson keeps one big surprise up his sleeve but this does not pertain to the murders which are the centre of the book’s plot. This difference makes me appreciate exactly what was so special about the first book – the marriage of detailed characterisation, driving thriller elements and great sociological vision and anger witha traditional whodunit. TGWPWF certainly retains the first three elements to greater or lesser degrees but because of the absence of an excellent whodunit the book is much less compelling. Tabulating these elements also makes me realise that Larsson’s British equivalent is Minette Walters.

Turning then to those elements which are present one of the three great strengths of TGWPWF is the characterisation of Lisbeth Salander who is unquestionably, as countless observers have remarked, one of the great characters of modern mystery fiction. Whenever she is on the page the book sizzles, simply because of her magnetism. Blomkvist is also a fascinating if less compelling character. However I found the secondary characterisation here a little wanting. Yes there were some very nice vignettes but no-one who really grabbed my attention or was presented in any real psychological depth. The second strength was Larsson’s ability to propel the narrative forward in terms of action – the thriller elements; he is undoubtedly expert at this even though such elements are never my favourite part of mystery writing.

Where he scores more highly with me is in the third of the book’s strengths – the sociological vision and anger. In amongst his general analysis of the workings of power, class and gender in Swedish society, we have here in particular attention to issues of violence against women, homophobia and abuse within the psychiatric system. Sweden – and Scandinavia in general – are so often held up, or believed to be, models of good social practice that some of these things came over as quite shocking to this British reader. Personally, as it is an area of great interest to me, I would single out the harrowing account of the misuse of and abuse that occurs within the psychiatric system. Larsson writes about that issue with both compelling clarity and a burning anger which make the passages concerned among the best in the whole book.

Anyone who has read Dragon Tattoo will want to read this book – and indeed the rest of the trilogy; and I would recommend that everyone try Dragon Tattoo (if there is anyone left who hasn’t!). However in my opinion this second instalment does not repeat that book’s stunning success (although even there I was less stunned than some). While Larsson has some enormous strengths the absence of the convincing whodunit element of his first book mean that TGWPWF lacks that element of surprise and innovation which was present in Dragon Tattoo. It will however be fascinating to see where he goes in the third instalment and remains a source of great regret that the entire trilogy is posthumous.

(June 2009)