The Girl Who Played with Fire
The first volume of the Millenium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was very successful in being both an engaging thriller and a relevant social critique of the situation of women in modern society. However, its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, despite keeping its social function intact, presents a very slow paced narrative that never seems to know exactly which characters and threads are better to focus its attention on: instead of always following the protagonist, the story often digresses, highlighting useless points of view that never interfere in the book’s climax.
It is Lisbeth Salander who deservedly takes the lead role here. After investigating the frauds of businessman Wennerström, and becoming a millionaire, Lisbeth decides to go far away from Sweden and so she travels to the island of Granada in the Caribbean, where she initiates a sexual relationship with a young resident and begins to suspect the intentions of her neighbors. Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist is preparing a special edition of his Millenium magazine, in which he will accuse several members of the judiciary and the police of contributing to women trafficking and participating in the sex trade that occurs illegally in his country.
The book wastes no time in revealing that it will continue to explore its predecessor’s main theme by situating the prologue in a torture chamber where a girl is being held: abuse committed against women remains the cornerstone of The Girl Who Played with Fire. As in the previous volume, Larsson doesn’t spare the reader from uncomfortable statistical data, showing them through exposition-heavy dialogues that go into the details of how the schemes operate, informing the salary of those involved and even the number of women used: “I have worked out that a girl can bring in an estimated 60,000 kronor a month. Of this about 15,000, say, is costs — travel, clothing, full board, etc. It’s no life of luxury; they may have to crash with a bunch of other girls in some apartment the gang provides for them. Of the remaining 45,000 kronor, the gang takes between 20,000 and 30,000. The gang leader stuffs half into his own pocket, say 15,000, and divides the rest among his employees — drivers, muscle, others. The girl gets to keep 10,000 to 12,000 kronor […] That’s about how the finances of rape look.” The characters can’t even get their head around the fact that, often, the profit is even low to those involved: “It is small change. And to bring in these relatively modest sums, around a hundred girls have to be raped. It drives me mad.”
It is the book’s theme the main element responsible for making the story relevant despite its many issues. For Larsson never stops attacking his society, never wasting an opportunity to construct, through the characters, precise social criticisms: in one scene the characters will complain about budget cuts in psychiatric treatments and in another they will ironize the police’s competence: “In its wisdom, however, the Swedish police had introduced hollow-body hunting ammunition to the police arsenal two years earlier.”
Therefore, it’s a pity that this time the author simply fails to construct an exciting narrative. In the first book, for example, several questions were suggested to the reader to keep their attention. Why did not Mikael defend himself in court? What does Wennerström hide? Who killed Harriet? These were relevant questions that, from the outset, captured the attention of the reader and defined the main narrative threads of the book.
Here, however, Lisbeth’s trip to Granada raises questions that, besides being quickly resolved, do not interfere in the overarching story in any shape or form. The mystery about the hotel’s peculiar Americans, for example, is nothing more than a reference to the first book’s theme, and the relationship between Lisbeth and her lover is also a useless distraction, since the only thing it does is increase the number of pages of the novel.
When the main plotline finally seems to come forth – after a few murders incriminate Lisbeth – the author divides it into three investigations. The first follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who refuses to accept the guilt of his former partner and so begins to investigate the links between what he would publish in his magazine and the recent incidents. The main problem of this part is the fact that Mikael here is an apathetic character. Often Lisbeth herself is forced to push him onto the right path, since most of the time he’s just sitting on a chair, checking the same names over and over – obviously ignoring the only one that matters – while mulling their relationship over.
The second investigation is led by Detective Blublanski. Larsson’s goal here must certainly be to infuriate the reader, since the police’s conclusions are always completely misguided by prejudice. Most of the people who work for Blublanski represent the viewpoints attacked by the book and so analyze the evidence based on preconceived judgments about who is to blame. When the people who know Lisbeth claim that she is not crazy and much less dumb, despite what her psychiatric profile says, the detective, instead of taking the information into consideration, gets irritated. The point here is to paint the police as a failed institution that instead of doing its job, acts as a tool of oppression. The problem is that, despite the police investigation obviously not going anywhere, it still occupies an enormous space in the novel.
Almost the same can be said about the third investigation, initiated by Lisbeth’s former employer, Dragan Armanskij. Armanskij, under the excuse of assisting the authorities, is actually trying to find out if Salander actually committed the crimes she is accused of. But this thread has no point whatsoever, not even a reason to exist, since, in addition to not influencing or adding any new perspectives to the narrative, it doesn’t even reach a proper climax.
Therefore, as soon as the main plot of the book is revealed and the protagonist is incriminated, she disappears from the narrative, which prefers to follow three irrelevant investigations led by individuals unable to discover any information by themselves.
In addition, the author also falters considerably when it comes to the repetition of ideas. It is already quite tiresome to have to accompany five different characters concluding after pages and pages of reflection that they never really knew Lisbeth Salander, and thus she could very well be guilty; now, reading those same people reflecting that same thing more than once is simply absurd.
It is also worth noting that Larsson exaggerates so much the incompetence of the police that the reader does not believe that they can be so ignorant: during the scene in which the psychiatrist Peter Teleborian states in national television that Lisbeth “can still get well, and she would have gotten well if she had received the care she needed when she was still treatable” and then right after that says “That was because she was not receptive to treatment,” the reader will inevitably wonder if the clear inconsistency of the statement went unnoticed only by the police or also by the author.
Finally, Larsson seems to go crazy at the climax, transforming Lisbeth Salander into an invincible superhero capable of deducing anything and overcoming any obstacle, betraying the realistic tone of the story.
Stieg Larsson may have expanded the theme of his novels and put his most interesting character in the spotlight, but, by building a completely flawed and uninteresting narrative, he ends up making The Girl Who Played with Fire a much lesser book than the first one.
April 19, 2019.
Review originally published in Portuguese on July 11, 2015.
Published July 28th 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf