Title: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Larsson, Stieg (2009). The Girl Who Played with Fire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
- Originally published: Stockholm : Norstedts, 2006.
Date Posted: January 2, 2017
Review by Michiko Kakutani
Lisbeth Salander, the angry punk hacker in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 best seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was one of the most original and memorable heroines to surface in a recent thriller: picture Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft endowed with Mr. Spock’s intense braininess and Scarlett O’Hara’s spunky instinct for survival. She and the middle-aged, down-on-his-luck reporter Mikael Blomkvist made quite the odd couple, and their chemistry fueled that earlier novel, driving it through its hurried, contrived ending.
Now Salander is back in The Girl Who Played With Fire in an even more central role. This time she is less detective than quarry, as she becomes the chief suspect in three murders. Hunted by the police and enemies from her past, she goes underground, while Blomkvist, one of the few people to believe in her innocence, races to find her—and clues to the real killer.
Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark Dragon Tattoo—Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here—it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion.
The three people murdered are Nils Erik Bjurman, a lawyer and Salander’s guardian, who once brutally raped her; Dag Svensson, a writer finishing an explosive article about the sex trade for Blomkvist’s magazine (an article that threatens to ruin the reputations of several policemen, five lawyers, a prosecutor, a judge and three journalists); and Svensson’s girlfriend and researcher, Mia Johansson. In his last conversation with Blomkvist, Svensson mentioned he had a new lead on a mysterious gangster, known as Zala, whom he wanted to track down before his article went to press.
Like many thriller writers, Mr. Larsson—who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel, Dragon Tattoo and a third companion volume—is overly fond of coincidence, and this is certainly the case here. Salander has just come back from a year of traveling: she had left Stockholm after falling in love with Blomkvist, who had taken up with another woman, and was furious with herself for falling prey to an emotion that goes against her image of herself as unsentimental and tough as nails.
Upon returning, she hacks into Blomkvist’s computer to check up on him and discovers an e-mail message from Svensson mentioning Zala, who just happens to be a dreaded figure from her own past. Hours before Svensson and Johansson are found dead—by Blomkvist, of all people—Salander pays them a surprise visit, determined to find out what they know , about Zala. The police discover her fingerprints on the gun used to kill them—a gun, we learn, that belonged to her former guardian, Bjurman, who is later found dead in his apartment, naked and draped over his bed.
By cutting cinematically from one set of characters to another, Mr. Larsson builds suspense, while tracking the progress of several simultaneous investigations: the campaign of a likable criminal inspector named Bublanski and his team to track down Salander, whom they regard as their chief suspect; Blomkvist’s quest to exonerate Salander and find the real killer, who he suspects must have had something at stake in the pending publication of Svensson’s exposé; the efforts of a private security investigator named Armansky, who once employed Salander, to track down her whereabouts; and Salander’s own crusade to find Zala, exact revenge and finally come to terms with the horrors of her childhood.
As he did in Dragon Tattoo, Mr. Larsson—a former journalist and magazine editor—mixes precise, reportorial descriptions with lurid melodramatics lifted straight from the stock horror and thriller cupboard. He gives us an immediate sense of the sleek, yuppified world inhabited by Blomkvist and his married business associate and sometime lover, Erika Berger and the daily rigors of publishing a monthly magazine. He gives us a detailed, “CSI”-type understanding of the investigative methods employed by the police and the computer pyrotechnics performed by Salander. At the same time Mr. Larsson has his characters talk in portentous tones of things like “All the Evil.” And he gives us two cartoony James Bondian villains: a hulking blond giant, incapable of feeling pain, and his evil, physically disfigured master, who happens to be a former Soviet agent with ties to the underworld.
The ending of The Girl Who Played With Fire—like the revelation about Salander’s past, which gives the book its title—comes straight out of a horror movie: it’s gory, harrowing and operatically over the top. The reason it works is the same reason that Dragon Tattoo worked: Mr. Larsson’s two central characters, Salander and Blomkvist, transcend their genre and insinuate themselves in the reader’s mind through their oddball individuality, their professional competence and, surprisingly, their emotional vulnerability.
Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani
A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2009, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Suspected, Pursued. Innocent?. Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani
 Michiko Kakutani, “Suspected, Pursued. Innocent?” The New York Times (A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2009, on page C21 of the New York edition). Downloaded January 2, 2017. Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani