The Girl Who Played with Fire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am

The Girl Who Played with Fire

by Stieg Larsson

MacLehose Press


When journalist Dag Svensson and his partner are gunned down in their apartment, police start a nationwide hunt for the prime suspect, Lisbeth Salander, whose fingerprints are found on the murder weapon.

The ensuing media circus portrays Salander as an introverted psychopath with violent tendencies and a penchant for sadomasochistic lesbian sex. But Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist at a current affairs magazine, knows a different side of her.

Odd, yes. With personal skills that verge on the autistic, this tough, determined 25 year old, while capable of extreme violence, is guided by her own morals. Far from being mentally impaired, Salander is a skilled researcher and world-class computer hacker.

Furthermore, Svensson was about to break Sweden's biggest sex-trafficking story for the magazine, exposing senior establishment figures, police officers, journalists and criminals in the process. Blomkvist considers this motivation enough for someone to silence the journalist and he starts investigating.

As Salander embarks on a one-woman war to clear her name and seek revenge against her persecutors, the separate investigations reveal a messy complex of gangland killings, organised crime and cold war-era operations - alongside a state conspiracy to silence Salander.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second instalment in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and while it refers to book one, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there is no need to have read it first.

Larsson was a famous Swedish social activist and journalist who founded the anti-fascist magazine Expo. He died from a heart attack in 2004, aged 50, leaving three unpublished novels and outlines for another seven in the series.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is an engaging, keenly written, intellectual thriller. The author balances narrative style, strong characters and pace with a complicated storyline. Readers are not required to suspend their disbelief. The conspiracy is not too conspiratorial, with chance and circumstance factoring heavily in events. Technicolor explosions and Hollywood character curves are thankfully absent.

Larsson adheres to the journalistic law of brevity. His tight, pointed writing avoids purple prose, focusing instead on detail and creating characters with substantial back stories. Salander's and Blomkvist's personalities are laid bare, with their idiosyncrasies making them engaging and believable. The author also provides a snapshot of the daily life of an investigative journalist and this bolsters his already realistic depiction of police enquiries.

There is a liberal attitude to sex throughout the novel. People are experimental, occasionally fetishistic, but never perverse, apart from the bad guys. Larsson is content with leading up to erotic encounters without subjecting readers to badly written sex scenes.

In style and quality the novel can be compared to John le Carre's recent offerings. The plot may not be all encompassing, its focus is more national than geopolitical, but the level of research, its earthy realism and, most importantly, the author's ability to grasp, entertain and inform readers, are comparable.


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