The Girl Who Played with Fire
- The Millennium Series, Book 2
- By: Stieg Larsson
Stieg Larsson was a crusading Swedish journalist, committed to the fight against political extremism and racism in his home country. In his spare time he completed a trilogy of striking crime novels, which he delivered to his publishers just before his untimely death in 2004. The first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, centred on Mikhail Blomkvist, a crusading journalist with a social conscience; its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, shifts focus onto the socially awkward computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, who becomes entangled in an investigation into sex trafficking, murder, and establishment corruption. This unusual central character is the story’s main strength, allowing it to stand apart from the raft of contemporary and classic crime novels which Larsson fondly draws on. An expert hacker and mathematics-obsessive, Salander is a clenched fist of a character; difficult, psychologically traumatised, and capable of extreme violence.
Simon Vance endows her with the accent of an East London street urchin, a fitting voice for this embattled woman. While his narration is crisp, Vance’s other characters range from working-class Northern English accents for Blomkvist, assorted police, and journalists, while others are given accents somewhere between Scandinavian and Bela Lugosi. However, as the plot thickens, such incongruities are forgotten, and a compelling social reality is created by Vance’s skilled performance, which includes a sensitive rendition of a stroke victim’s voice. Vance’s cool delivery also suits the reportage feel of much of the writing; characters are introduced through their occupation, address, and educational background, while a mass of tiny observations (such as coffee mugs decorated with the logo of the civil service union) at times convey the tone of a police report. It is a tribute to Vance’s delivery that the narrative thrust carries the accumulation of detail effortlessly from one action-packed set-piece to the next.
Larsson’s published books have been a European phenomenon, due less, perhaps, to any narrative or thematic innovations as to the author’s visceral anger at social injustice and the mistreatment of the vulnerable, particularly women. Violence against women is the work’s central motif: the Swedish title of the first book in the series translates as Men Who Hate Women, and Salander is “the woman who hates men who hate women”. In fact, there is an element of salacious revenge fantasy to much of her actions as she fights fire with fire; the story treads a fine line between condemning sadism and revelling in sadistic imagery. The real enemy of the tale is institutionalised machismo: policemen are loutish, rape is endemic, and villains enjoy guns, motorbikes, and magazines about motorbikes. Everyone, meanwhile, summers in wood shacks in the Swedish countryside.
While very much part of a larger whole (there are numerous references to events that occurred in the first part of the trilogy), The Girl Who Played with Fire stands alone as a highly enjoyable, if not always smooth – and often disquieting – mixture of classic crime tropes, searing violence, and vivid characterization.