Thursday, July 2, 2009

Playing With Fire



“I hope I die before I get old (talking ‘bout my generation)”

Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey may well have sincerely meant it when they wrote that line, but I’m not sure that the readers of the best-selling Millennium Trilogy would share those sentiments, as the writer Stieg Larsson died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack in 2004 shortly after delivering the manuscripts for these three crime novels to his publisher, depriving us of further insights into the murky depths of Swedish society.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second book in the trilogy and is that rare thing – a sequel that is even better than the book that went before. When you consider that the first book was the sensational The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, that is high praise indeed. Although Tattoo was an incredibly hard act to follow, Fire is even more gripping and astonishing, as it builds upon the first, gradually revealing past events which help explain the characters’ motivations, to make a truly unforgettable read.

The book features many of the characters from Larsson’s debut, among them the extraordinary Lisbeth Salander, social misfit and hacker extraordinaire, and Mikael Blomkvist, crusading journalist and publisher of Millennium magazine, who in the first novel worked together on a terrifying hunt for a serial killer and had an affair, despite Salander’s solitary nature and apprehensions about men.

The book is in some senses two books in one, as it starts with an extensive prologue that increasingly illuminates Salander’s back-story: the reasons for her institutionalization as a teenager, the horrifying abuse she suffered at the hands of her legal guardian … and the gruesome, Old Testament revenge she inflicts upon him. Since Tattoo, Salander has been traveling the world, ending up in Grenada, where she has a brief affair with a local, witnesses an attempted murder during a tornado and sets out to solve Fermat’s last theorem. Returning to Sweden, Salander tries to live a private life in a luxury apartment, which she purchases using the substantial fortune she obtained via her hacking skills.

In the meantime, Blomkvist is working on a story that will expose the sex-trafficking trade, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business and government. When the two investigative journalists writing the story are found killed in their apartment, Blomkvist is shocked to discover that Salander is implicated as prime suspect, because her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. Although Salander has refused to have any contact with Blomkvist, for reasons that he does not understand, he is convinced that she is innocent, so seeks to clear her name in the face of the media witch-hunt.

But Salander is no helpless victim. Not only is she a computer hacker with a photographic memory, but, like a latter day Modesty Blaise, she is not afraid to mix it, putting her boxing talents to good use. Driven on by a fierce set of morals, she is drawn to the murder investigation in which she is also the prey. Using her hacking skills to stay one step ahead of her pursuers, she plans violent retribution for the traffickers in an effort to deal with her dark past once and for all.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a brilliant combination of urgent, multilayered thriller, traditional police procedural and articulate examination of the way a supposedly open-minded country like Sweden treats its vulnerable women and children. Although Larsson’s books are thrillers in terms of plot, they are also critiques of Swedish society in terms of their content. He focuses on abuses of power: big business in Tattoo and misogynistic men in Fire. In Salander’s words:

There are no innocents … just different degrees of responsibility.

Swedish crime fiction is undergoing something of a resurgence these days with Henning Mankell’s Wallander, but Larsson’s work is distinguished by its academic knowledge and pop culture references (Salander as a Lara Croft for grown-ups?). He writes like someone overcome with the thrill of story-telling, constructing a suspenseful plot that ramps up the excitement without over-dosing on melodrama. He is particularly good at penciling in the secondary characters, making a large cast distinctive and individual, including Erika Berger (Millennium’s Editor), Miriam Wu (Salander’s occasional girlfriend) and Nils Bjurman (corrupt lawyer and Salander’s abusive guardian). Larsson has an outstanding ability to handle dozens of characters and parallel narratives without losing tension.

However, the huge pleasure of this book is Lisbeth Salander, an utterly compelling character, who is surely the most original heroine to emerge in crime fiction for many years. The traditional detective (or pathologist, as seems inevitably to be the case if female) has been stunningly re-invented here. Salander is an enigmatic character with a complex psychology. A young woman with an appalling past, suffering from Asperger Syndrome, she is a disdainful twenty-something: a tattooed, pierced, vengeful, bisexual social misfit. Sexually abused by one guardian, intellectually mentored by another, she flits between criminality and crime detection with no appreciable change in her moral stance.

If someone threatens her with a gun, she’ll get a bigger gun.

"What a waste"

Apparently, Larsson was about 100 pages into a fourth book, and according to friends had a further six in the Millennium series planned in his head. Larsson’s untimely death was devastating for his friends, colleagues and family, but it added to the myth surrounding him and his books. He has joined the roll call of sublime creative talents snuffed out in their prime.

Larsson admirers are already impatiently looking forward to the third (though, regrettably, concluding) book in the sequence, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Just call me The Boy Who Cannot Wait.

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