The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wondered in my review of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" -- the first book in this Swedish thriller-trilogy (thrillogy?) by Stieg Larsson -- whether that book would serve as a setup for the succeeding volumes, each improving on the last. I'm happy to report that 2/3rds of the way through the series that does, in fact, seem to be the case.
"The Girl Who Played with Fire" picks up fairly shortly after the events of "Dragon Tattoo" and delves further into the characters lives. In this way, the first volume gives us a relatively straightforward thriller, introducing us to many of the characters who then receive some more purposeful time in the spotlight in this sequel, enriching our understanding of each of them as people. The genius lies in Larsson's intertwining the two classic mystery-novel tropes:
1) "the next adventure in the implausibly exciting lives of these two characters introduced in the last mystery novel" and
2) "the excavation of the mysterious back-story of the damaged yet brilliant heroine."
The heroine in this case is Lisbeth Salander, (the titular girl (with the dragon tattoo who played with fire)), who is also one of the characters living the implausibly exciting life. My proposed tagline for the movie-adaptation of this book: "First she cracked the case, now she IS the case!"
There's a lot going on in this book, all of it somewhat complicated by the many and varied diacritics in the Swedish names and places (diacritics, not Germanic umlauts as I, in my cultural and linguistic ignorance, would have called them before my quick survey of wikipedia (all hail!)). But keeping lots of characters with crazy-lookin' names straight is sometimes a struggle, as is navigating the layers of conspiracy that begin to be uncovered in this book.
The layers of conspiracy are dense and shadowy -- not to say opaque -- make no mistake about it. My hope for book #3 (already on pre-order from Amazon in the less-than-preferable hardcover format, so great is my impatience!) is that Larsson separates out some of the threads discovered in this book to make all the connections somewhat more clear. There were a lot of moments like: "Aha! So-and-so was WORKING for so-and-so!" that may have been supposed to be major revelations but for me were mostly just signposts that an important connection had been made between villainous characters I struggled to keep straight as I plowed straight through towards the conclusion.
I have some minor criticisms of the book, which may or may not be seen as contradictory. For one, the middle of the book sagged slightly where it should have started sprinting for the finish line; different characters kept summarizing what they knew, or thought they knew about the mystery -- which I understand from the perspective of keeping us, the reading audience, onboard, but which I didn't like dramatically, or from the standpoint of pacing. (This, of course, as I complain about not understanding or being able to keep up with all the twists and conspiracies! I'm impossible to please.) For another, the dialogue is sometimes surprisingly leaden. I'm willing to hope that what was once crackling dialogue in Swedish is lost in translation, sadly morphed into heavy-handed, tone-deaf English blather.
But overall, I really enjoyed the book, and tore through it at a relentless rate. Delving into Lisbeth Salandar’s history while a murder mystery furiously rages enriches and deepens this book in comparison to “Dragon Tattoo.” I confess that I am excited and impatient for “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” which looks like it will arrive just in time to be devoured in between quarters at school!
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