Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crime Fiction: The Girl Who Played
with Fire
by Stieg Larsson

In the great mash-up that is our culture these days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find anything that’s pure. There’s the adventure/love story. The family drama/serial-killer thriller. The coming-of-age shoot-’em-up. And here I sit, having read the new so-called thriller by Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Played with Fire (Knopf), wondering how to categorize the thing.

Not that it matters a lick. Trust me. Larsson was a Swedish reporter and novelist who died suddenly, supposedly of a heart attack, although there are rumors that he was offed by some of the criminals he wrote about. The thing is, before he died he wrote three bang-up novels (and part of a fourth) that achieved best-seller status after he died, from one end of Stockholm to the other ... taking the really, really long way around. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was published in the States last summer; the second was just published; and the third is due out on this side of the Atlantic in a year or so.

The Girl Who Played with Fire picks up about two years after Tattoo. That novel’s unforgettable hero and heroine -- Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander -- haven’t seen each other in all that time, and life has only become more, well, lifelike since then. Blomkvist is writing for his magazine, on the lookout for his next exposé; Salander is living off the billions of kronor she siphoned away when no one was looking, trying to find something elusive: a normal life. They both seem kind of bored. And then a young colleague of Blomkvist is brutally murdered (along with his girlfriend), and so is Salander’s guardian. The prime suspect: Salander herself. And since no one but Blomkvist thinks the whole thing is a big mistake, it’s up to him to prove her innocent.

Larsson crafted Fire with the same deadpan, matter-of-fact style he used in Tattoo, and it works just as well the second time around. He lays out his plot and his characters in a way that almost makes you think very little is happening -- except, actually, everything is happening. He’s sly, Larsson, lacing details through his sentences that won’t become relevant for perhaps two or three hundred pages -- but when they do, you’re with him. You remember.

He’s filled this book with murderers, dirty lawyers, cops of all stripes, old and new friends, and a bad-ass Keyser Söze-type bad guy. To say each one is memorable would be a cheat. It’d be more accurate to say each one is indelible.

The problem I had with Fire is the same one I had with Tattoo: Larsson’s reliance on the geography of Sweden to tell his story. I don’t know why he needs to let us know every street’s name, every little shop, every little everything. The story would move so much faster (not that it’s not fast anyway) without these distractions; worse, the words are tough to pronounce, and so they slow you down, pull you out of the action. It’s a real irritation.

But aside from this -- and really, it’s a minor point -- The Girl Who Played with Fire is just a brilliant read. Larsson takes characters we know and could easily describe in some detail, then layers on fresh nuances, rich back-stories and complications galore. Sure, the story is new, and so naturally the characters will behave appropriately (as in any series whose author is paying attention). But on a much deeper level, it’s clear that Larsson knows these people far better than he’s letting on, and he’s content, in these books, to dole out just the information we need to be completely enthralled. I could keep reading these for ages, and I’m bummed there’s only one more.

The Girl Who Played with Fire -- oddly epic love story, ultra-violent crime thriller and classic buddy novel all at once -- truly defies categorization. I think that’s just one of the things that make it the perfect novel for right this minute.

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Anonymous Sharpe Books said...

tes of the comment box really

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 5:05:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I immensely enjoyed the first, am reading and continuing to enjoy the second presently, and plan to devour the third when available. Larsson's novels are highly recommended, and the translations are spot-on!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 9:28:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished Tattoo, after having read Fire, reversed order, but it didn't matter. Both novels completely engrossing, page-turners - 700 to 800 pages of pure anticipation. I love the Swedish location names - did not slow me down, enhanced the experience of learning a little about the country. Salander is perhaps one of my favourite fictional characters of all time - a tiny, waif-like, girl child, with nerves of steel. BRAVO

Sunday, May 30, 2010 at 11:34:00 AM PDT  

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