Trilogies, whether in the medium of film or the written word, tend to follow a standard formula. First, we have the stand alone tale to introduce the characters, get the audience attached and on a more simplistic level to hook the audience so that they want to watch too further instalments. Next comes the middle instalment, existing mostly to set the story up for the final instalment where the pay-off finally arrives. I hate the middle section. Star Wars is a classic example. Everyone I know seems to like The Empire Strikes Back and my response is always the same. “Why? Nothing actually happens.” Stieg Larsson may have envisaged a ten book saga when he started writing his Millenium trilogy but he delivered three and the first two books behave exactly like the first two parts of any trilogy.
Lisbeth Salander has enjoyed a respite from the drama of her Hedestad adventures but soon finds herself seemingly devoid of allies when she is accused of triple homicide and a full scale police investigation is launched against her. Forced to go to ground by the media and the police, Salander indirectly aided by the loyal Mikael Blomkvist who owes her his life and is not afraid to risk his career and his life on the presumption of her innocence. Old enemies are surfacing, but Salander has yet to realise she also has the support of those who know her and that ignorance will place her in the greatest danger she has encountered yet.
I found Larsson to be true to form in this book. Like last time, 150 pages in I was still waiting for the plot to move anywhere substantial before it shot off at light speed. An additional issue I experienced was the sheer number of characters in this second volume are extremely difficult to keep track of while the novel progresses. The characters themselves are as unique and clearly defined as ever and I am tempted to blame my own confusion on my ignorance of Swedish names, but the truth is the large ensemble cast, some of whom have more than one identity, will have the reader identifying characters by their dialogue and actions more than their names.
There can be no doubt that the book is as bold and captivating as the first if not more so and Larsson manages to up the game by creating serious doubt as to Salander's innocence of her crimes. While the reader is bound to sympathise with her, Lisbeth Salander is so unpredictable and righteously violent in places that it is impossible not to ask whether Salander is guilty, partly guilty or entirely innocent of the accusations laid against her.
The plot is crazy and disturbing in equal measure, but it also has that quality of storytelling that makes it impossible to put down after the plot really starts to move. One cannot ignore the boldness of approach as well, considering the two main characters, Salander and Blomkvist, are to all intents and purposes separated for the vast majority of the book.
To be honest, the only problem I have with The Girl Who Played With Fire is that like so many other second parts in a trilogy, it doesn't really go anywhere. There is some resolution at the end of the novel but much of the book seems to be setting the scene directly for the third novel in the series, right down to the almost cliff-hanger style closing chapter. The message is clear: the story does not end here.
The truth is I would be lying if I said I was not looking forward to the third book in the series, or if I pretended I was not secretly saddened by the knowledge that the world will never see another book by Stieg Larsson following his death. Any criticism I have of The Girl Who Played With Fire would be purely in comparison to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was a truly exceptional piece of fiction. Larsson's well-researched, provocative, imaginative writing is a gift that deserves all of the appreciation it has received from critics in the past few years. Of course the true test of this trilogy will be whether the third book, The Girl Who Kicked A Hornet's Nest, will be able to round off the tale and meet all expectation. The most critical volume is yet to come, but The Girl Who Played With Fire will keep you thirsty for more. I'll let you know about volume three when it's released!