Fiction: "The Girl Who Played with Fire," by Stieg Larsson.
The late Stieg Larsson's first crime novel, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," made it to many critics' best lists and pleased readers as well.
It's a big novel with a whodunit plot that is also a family saga and an expose of Swedish political and legal corruption. But readers were most taken by its two central characters, the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and his assistant, the eccentric, brilliant computer hacker Lisbeth Salander.
The charming Blomkvist has the knowledge and the connections to work the case. Barely over 20, Salander, the title character, provides the technological genius that cracks it open and also the cold-blooded fury that saves Blomkvist's life.
Her life, to that point, is also the prime example of a subject that runs through both of these novels, the mistreatment and exploitation of girls and young women in Europe.
Salander is truly odd. Neither beautiful nor socially adept, her tattoos and body piercings are signs of her anti-social attitudes, but also of the pain and emotional suffering inflicted on her. She is angry for a reason. She was mistreated, misdiagnosed, misunderstood and, finally, sexually exploited by the authorities who should have cared for her.
With the help of a few supportive adults and her own unorthodox and daring brilliance she managed to make a place for herself on the fringe of society.
"The Girl Who Played With Fire," as long and as good as the original, follows Blomkvist and Salander, now no longer working together, as they try to expose corruption, solve murders and settle a few personal scores.
But when Blomkvist ends a brief affair with Salander, she cuts him out of her life -- much to his surprise and dismay. She begins using her wealth (obtained by hacking into the account of a corrupt banker) to travel and fix herself up with breast implants, new clothes, new furniture and a new apartment.
Blomkvist is back on the job investigating the sex trade when he sees Salander evade an attack by a thug. It seems she has been playing with fire again.
Later he discovers the bodies of two journalists who were working with him on the sex-trade investigation. The guardian who sexually molested Salander has also been shot. The prime suspect for the three killings, she drops out of sight.
Leading the investigation is Inspector "Bubbles" Bublanski, a wonderful character who is continually astounded and perplexed by the conflicting descriptions of Salander. Is she an immoral mental defective or a brilliant and hard-working, if eccentric, professional?
Reviews of Larsson's first novel compared Blomkvist and Salander to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. True enough.
But this novel makes it very clear that it is Salander, with her astonishing Internet investigations, who is the real post-modern incarnation of A. Conan Doyle's eccentric genius. She's brave. She's smart. She's even physically strong.
Indeed, it seems clear that Larsson is, in a playful way, associating Salander with another mythic character, Agent 007. She has some dangerous liaisons, dresses to kill and covers up some illegal, but justified, actions. She does everything but order the famous martini.
Larsson has given his readers the ingredients for a heady literary cocktail. The action is stirring, and my belief in Larsson's ability is not shaken. Cheers!
First Published August 9, 2009 12:00 am