Last year I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as part of CBR10 Bingo and loved it. Happily, I finally got back to the library to check out the two follow-up novels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
For about the first hundred pages of The Girl Who Played with Fire, I was skeptical. The book picks up with Lisbeth Salander hanging out in Grenada where she’s getting a little R&R, studying math equations, getting pissed off at herself for getting emotionally attached to Mikael Blomkvist, and also having sex with a local 16-year-old boy. In light of the many observations these novels make about inappropriate behavior men exhibit toward under-age women, this relationship, while legal in most places, struck me as not 100% appropriate. Also, Lisbeth had made a stop in Europe prior to coming to Grenada and got a boob job.
Um. . . sure, ok, I guess.
I have no problem with plastic surgery; Lisbeth Salander just doesn’t strike me as a woman whose self-esteem is tied to her cup size. I seriously thought I got my hands on a bad translation for a minute. Fortunately, Larsson gets back into form and many of my reservations about this book were assuaged. Overall, though, this series has a diminishing returns issue. Fire isn’t quite as good as Dragon Tattoo, and Hornet’s Nest isn’t as good as Fire.
The first novel in the Millennium series was titled Män som hatar kvinnor in Swedish (English translation: Men Who Hate Women), and the next two novels continue that theme with gusto. While the main impetus for the action involves an investigative report on sex trafficking and prostitution, the casual mysogyny of a number of the male characters is what stands out. For example, the subject of a police investigation is suspected of being a prostitute because she owns black leather garments and corsets (you know, whore outfits); a female police officer is “emotional” and is told by her chauvinistic colleague that she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed; a police detective is “pussy whipped” because he listens to said female police officer’s point of view; a singer is deemed a standoffish bitch because she isn’t interested in a man’s sexual advances. A typical Friday night on a 4chan incel board, basically.
Larsson, who made his living as a journalist, also hammers away at journalistic integrity, or lack thereof. He directs his ire at the type of media that whip up a frenzy around investigations and influence public opinion by printing rumor and innuendo. In one of my favorite passages, Larsson writes, “When all the media assertions were put together, the police appeared to be hunting for a psychotic lesbian who had joined a cult of Satanists that propagandized for S&M sex and hated society in general and men in particular. Because Salander had been abroad for the past year, there might be international connections too.” Fire introduces a character named Dag Svennson who is described as, “. . .an exacting journalist who left very few loose ends. He did not employ the heavy-handed rhetoric typical of so much other social reporting, which turned texts into pretentious trash.” Clearly that is the type of journalist Larsson admired.
In these novels we learn about Lisbeth Salander’s history, and man is she messed up, if we didn’t know that already. While she is a formidable protagonist, I was happy to see the book acknowledge, through her old guardian Holger Palmgren, that there is indeed something wrong with her. We may like her (with reservations) and want her to prevail, but we can’t go on pretending she is simply a victim. As Larsson writes, she has “selective morality.”
One of the things I loved about Dragon Tattoo is that it is a classic “locked room” mystery, with the locked room being an island. These two novels are very different in that they take on more of a spy-thriller/government conspiracy tone and, in the case of Hornet’s Nest, a courtroom drama. They are still fairly entertaining, but they lack the self-contained appeal of the first novel.
Random stuff I liked:
- Erika Berger as the new editor-in-chief of one of Sweden’s biggest daily newspapers. In one scene, she says, “[obnoxious editor] has a choice: either he can do things my way, or he can do something else. I’m going to bulldoze anyone who is obstructive or who tries to damage SMP in some other way.” Go, Ricky! Since Berger was played by Robin Wright in the Hollywood version of Dragon Tattoo, all I could picture during that scene was Amazon general Antiope kicking ass.
- The opening passage of Fire, which describes a 13-year-old girl strapped to a bed is disturbing. Later, when the context of that scene is revealed, it becomes one of the most powerful revelations of the series.
- In one passage where a mischief maker (one of our local misogynists) is trying to frame Erika by sending harassing emails to her coworkers, he writes of kissing “your delicious grotto.” That made me laugh and also wonder whether E.L. James read this book and thought that was a serious line.
Things that made me go, “huh?”
- Blomkvist is having a casual affair with Harriet Vanger? That man is a magnet for traumatized women. In Hornet’s Nest he also has an affair with a detective because, let’s face it, the guy likes to sleep around. I get the whole sexual liberation theme, but I’m not sure I’m on board with a woman risking damage to her career (which is important to her) for a guy she barely knows.
- Larsson writes very descriptive passages, which is fine, but I’m often curious about why he feels the need to provide detail to the level of the number of teaspoons of milk Blomkvist enjoys in his cappuccino or the exact contents of a minor character’s breakfast. Is this a Swedish thing or a journalist thing?
These novels are definitely not as tightly written as Dragon Tattoo, but they are still entertaining thrillers. I enjoyed them, but I prefer the less sensationalistic first entry in the series.