Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Played With Fire

by Rachel Baker on July 13, 2009

If you remember, I put the first of Stieg Larsson’s books, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, on the top of my best books of 2009 list in February.  I loved it, I couldn’t get enough of it, and was thrilled to get a review copy of The Girl Who Played with Fire several months before the release so I didn’t have to wait.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a continuation of the life of Salander Lisbeth.  If you will recall from Dragon Tattoo, she’s the heroine.  She’s a recluse, she’s a computer hack, and she’s a private investigator – on her time and her way.  And, there’s something that appears to be ‘off’ about her. The first book is written in such a way that its difficult to see she’s the main character until the very end – when one is just thinking about their reading experience. In the second installment, Salander is definitely the main character; and we get the back story, as well as, more present day thrill and investigation.

As much as I couldn’t wait to crack the cover and start reading, I was a little hesitant. Second books in a series are generally never as good as the first.  The problem for me is they are loaded with back story, and are often dry reading in more areas than not.  Book Twos tend to take on their own personality separate from its predecessor and forget the reader needs to be prepped to read Book Three. I tend to want a series where each book can stand on its own without either of the other books as a basis for its success.  I understand that sounds odd, since the whole of a series normally centers on one or two characters and the “life and times” of the character is the storyline of each book.

That said, The Girl Who Played With Fire could probably stand on its own – and may actually be more enjoyable that way.  There were some dry parts, and I was a little disappointed with some of changes in Salander’s character, but if I’d never read the first book, I would have loved the second book.  In fairness, I did love the second book, it kept my attention; the action was exciting, the investigation was intriguing, and there was a ton of detail in the plot.

I enjoyed The Girl Who Played With Fire, probably more than I enjoyed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for a completely different reason.  In Dragon Tattoo, Salander was just nuts – but you knew there was a pretty good story as to why she appeared the way she did, but she wasn’t really the topic of the main story. She was sort of a secondary story. In Played with Fire, she became the primary character and one could completely understand her need to stay under the radar; as well as her perceived need to not develop any real relationships in the first book.

I felt there were several stories in The Girl Who Played with Fire.  First we had Salander’s story, then we had the sex-trade industry in Sweden, as well as, the issues with Millennium (the publication company that Michael Blomkvist helped found).

The first quarter of the book is about the world travel Salander has done since the first book.  We join her in Grenada, where she’s reading advanced mathematics books, she’s having an affair with an island boy and she’s stalking the guy who is staying in the room next to her with his wife.  There are some strange events that occur which left me wondering what the point of those first couple hundred pages were. They are never mentioned again once we get back to Sweden where Salander begins her new “settled” life.

Once we get back to Sweden, this second installment centers around a criminal investigation of three murders that are tied directly to Salander and are related to her past.  The way Larsson gradually revealed her past in relation to these crime was done extremely well.  One can easily understand why Salander is determined to solve these crimes on her own and why she distrusts the police so vehemently.

Larsson did a fabulous job keeping my attention, but there were some things that bothered me greatly about it. Salander Lisbeth is a “there’s no way all this horrible stuff could have really happened” type of character, and while some of her story is a bit unbelievable, it makes for good reading.  Comparing the two books, I was a bit disappointed with the way Salander’s character progressed through the book; however, I still got some of the “holy crap she’s nuts” feeling about her, which was what kept me going in the first book. Throughout the second book, I felt that Salander was becoming a bit too cliche – she had tons of money when we first start the book and we find out she’s had a breast enlargement, she’s still incredibly thin (though she lives off junk food), and we are privvy to her sexual escapades with both men and women.  Salander is a private person – she wouldn’t have drawn attention to herself with a breast enlargement and she wouldn’t have shared her sexual life in as much detail as I feel we were given.

Also, some of the evil doers in this book were truly cliche. If I had to put this to screenplay, I envision the bad guys as Dr. Evil, a mad scientist, and the Joker’s evil minions.  In fairness, all of these characters add to the intensity and excitement in the book. Its just they are a little too cliche. In some ways, I think I expected a little more from Larsson on this front based on book one.  I expected more depth, less cliche.

The depth of this book comes more from the story than from the characters.  In some ways, this book did exactly what I think is typical of a book two – the characters become cliche, the storyline becomes a bit predictable and the main character begins to make changes directed at the reader’s attention-span.  In my humble opinion, the beauty of the first book is that Salander was the exact opposite of what most readers would expect. She was mysterious, she was spunky and she didn’t appear to give a damn about too much of anything.  In book two, she began to care a little too much – about her looks, about her living style and about her relationship with others.  All the things we, as a society, think are important in a well-rounded person. She was different – and now…she’s not so much.

While it may seem I was disheartened by The Girl Who Played with Fire, I must say I actually really liked the book.  Not often do I read a book where I can be vaguely discouraged by the character development and still find the storyline fascinating and intriguing enough to read the book straight through.  The Girl Who Played with Fire is this type of book.  I read it straight through, I loved most of it.

I’m looking forward to the third installment by Larsson.  I’m not really sure where Larsson could possibly take Lisbeth in book three that would be as exciting as the first two books, other than the development of the love story, a reconnection with her mysterious sister, and the continuation of Lisbeth “getting it together”.  The high paced, bizarre “I’m going to figure this out on my own because the world is against me” investigative techniques seems to have come to an end with some of the core changes Salander has made in book two.  However, I can’t leave Lisbeth Salander where she’s at right now, and I need to see where she goes in life and how she does it.  Will she start up her own private investigative firm?  Will she search out her sister? Will she help investigate a new feature for Millinium, and find the dirty little secrets of some high powered government official? Who knows.  But for what its worth, even if there’s lots of out of character romance between her and Blomkvist, I’m still along for the ride – though I am hoping for less cliche in the final installment.

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