Comparatively speaking, Stieg Larsson writes phonebook-sized mystery novels, but in The Girl Who Played with Fire, he packs each page with only essentials. He gives his readers a sense of place, a sense of motivation, a sense of urgency. His main characters are true to their natures, and he is great at keeping them separate.
We met Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009's "it" book. Her dysfunctional life was compelling, and Larsson excelled at dropping teasing hints of what lay behind the immobile mask. I would have liked "Dragon Tattoo" more, but I disliked Mikael Blomqvist, the egocentric, sophisticated/knuckle-headed journalist whose troubles were at the heart of "Dragon Tattoo." On the other hand, I loved punk, cyber-goddess Salander. Blomqvist's part is large in "Fire," but thankfully, he is more subdued. "Fire" is all about Salander, and Larsson doesn't just drop teasing hints anymore, he drops the bomb.
I have to review "Fire" obliquely because it wouldn't be fair to burden you with prior knowledge. Some of the revelations Larsson makes are ooh-ahh moments, and I wouldn't want to spoil that. I will just say that I was thoroughly satisfied with the story of what made Salander tick.
Larsson's action sequences are well interspersed with more thoughtful, intelligence-gathering moments; it isn't just one Quentin Tarantino scene after another. But there are stomach-dropping action moments that will make you want to board that roller coaster again and again.
I rarely say that books need to be read in order, but it is crucial to the pyramid that Larsson is building that you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first. And this is why: There are three main murder victims in "Fire," and one of them is Bjurman, the nasty guardian Salander acquires when her kind and just guardian, Palmgren, suffers a stroke. Although Larsson does a good job summarizing his story from the prior book, Bjurman's despicable character needs to be seen in all its glory in "Dragon Tattoo." Larsson is soooo good at creating very, very bad characters, ones readers love to hate. And half the intrigue is wondering if and how Larsson will give them their comeuppance.
Blomkvist and Erica Berger, the editor of their exposé-style magazine, are getting ready to publish a book and companion magazine articles that will knock the underpinnings out of the burgeoning Swedish sex trade. Young women and girls are being brought over from eastern European countries to work as prostitutes against their will. The book and magazine stories will identify both the men who set up the trade and the men who pay for the women and girls. Among their number are several "respectable" members of Swedish society.
The young journalist and his fiancée who have brought the story to "Millennium," Berger and Blomqvist's magazine, are certain that there is a powerful person behind the system, despite so far encountering mostly dopes and men who couldn't organize their way out of a paper bag. What is Lisbeth Salander's connection to it all? Was she a sex slave? Was she an organizer? Larsson will make you quiver with anticipation to find out the answer.
Although the book has many cinematic moments, it doesn't read as so many books do these days – it doesn't grovel for a Hollywood treatment. I have no doubt that eventually indeed it will be a movie*, but that is incidental. From the Ikea moment when Salander buys her furniture for her new apartment to the nuts and bolts of the consistency of dirt to solving Fermat's famous equation, Larsson has many little moments that also contribute to the large, breath-taking adventure.
I want the third book now!
(*Yes, there is a Swedish movie and it's managed to make its way to Portland, but don't you think some Hollywood type is aching to turn it into an American blockbuster?)