Stieg Larsson

 

The Girl Who Played With Fire

 

I picked up this sequel in a 2nd hand stall and still haven’t read the ‘Dragon Tattoo’, but on the strength of this I might go back.

 

Larsson somehow manages to keep you turning the pages when there are surprisingly large passages devoid of action, focussing more on how investigators pursue their theories (theories that the reader might already know are false). And places where you can see why Larsson would have comfortably created such an Aspergers-style lead character: not many other authors would include (or get away with) the minutia of detail of the precise furniture, or shopping, or computer specs (or whatever) of Salander’s environment – maybe it addresses annoyances he had in reading other books which might refer to someone using their mobile (“Which mobile? What model? Did it have a decent touch screen?”).

 

There’s an interesting mix of the conventional with the individual here. While Salander is a departure from many standard heroes/heroines (most particularly socially: there’s no hint of Bridget Jones everywoman relatability here), the popularity of this book still hinges on that daydream revenge story: Larsson sets up baddies for supergirl to take down. I’d like to think there could be an argument to say this deserves a place alongside ‘novels’ given the depth of its characters, and I could almost be convinced of the authenticity of Salandar’s version of the world: a war zone, where survival depends on identifying your enemies and neutralising them. Her ‘condition’ in one way disables her, isolating her from the pleasure and security of everyday security in community; in another it frees her, enabling her to see straight past social disguises to the often ugly heart. But… no … this is overwhelmingly an implausible thriller: Salander is Jason Bourne, badass superagent; she’s almost James Bond in her emotionless sexuality; she’s that daydream fulfilment – what if I could do something about that jerk who cut me off in traffic today – how cool would it be to have a list, like Lisbeth, of people I could tick off as I invisibly got even with them.

 

Hey, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a decent thriller – and this is a decent thriller. The baddies are bad, and measured out capably, leading to a deft climax (if massively conventional – how many showdowns in isolated country houses could you name?). The vengeance feels apposite, with the pleasure of tables turned. Salander is this angel walking unrecognised amongst us: safe if we’re good, but terrible if crossed. Like Clint Eastwood or whoever, you want to pray that she’s around when it goes down. And her gimmick isn’t wit or a dog or OCD or a dead wife – it’s lack of social warmth or interest.

 

But I am saying you really want to be careful about, say, seeing this as some sort of feminist statement. Salander doesn’t challenge masculine paradigms, she simply becomes a bigger man. She beats them up, or shoots them, or humiliates them. She doesn’t hesitate to use torture (a disturbingly popular trend amongst heroes). In Larssen’s world (as in most thriller worlds), people are either bad or good, there is no grey. Forgiveness, for anyone, is not even a vague speculation: justice in terms of retribution is the only option. And, unlike life, it’s not messy or complex, there is no shared culpability, and no sense that getting someone back will often exacerbate the problem, and perhaps leave you with a greater burden. Which is just fine in thriller-world.

 

Spoilers.

 

The book plays effectively on sentimentalities: Larssen creates likeable people to be on her side. There are a few lapses in plausibility within its own terms of reference (smart people would not spend all this time floundering about for a motive when the victim had just told a whole bunch of immoral and powerful people with close criminal links that he was going to destroy their careers – with seemingly not the slightest awareness that this might cause some sort of reaction; an uber-baddie who has never been able to feel pain might work for an incident, but not a life: not getting feedback about protecting himself from damage, or from further damage, would actually greatly weaken him; uberbaddie lets himself get tied up like a lamb when once Blomkvist got within arms reach he could drop him with a shrug; the mobile phone out of charge – oh, and no cable? Nice that Larssen bothered trying to justify the fun of the heroic rescue, but, c’mon), but generally once we accept that Salander has the skills she’s supposed to, there aren’t too many ‘ziffs’.

 

March 2013