A Pippi Longstocking who packs a punch

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A Pippi Longstocking who packs a punch

Against my better judgment, I once made my bedtime reading “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the first installment of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Haunted with gruesome images of charred corpses, decapitated pets and bestial crime scenes, the novel, while riveting, cursed me with nightmares.

Despite this misfortune, as soon as I got my hands on the sequel, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” - out in U.S. bookstores this week - I made a home for the ponderous tome on my nightstand - and in my handbag, my backpack, the crook of my elbow and anywhere else I could possibly carry a book. It’s ripe for devouring, but unlike its sister novel The Girl Who Played with Fire sees its violence turned way down. This is quite the oddity considering a plot line that sounds exceedingly salacious and scary: a triple murder spurred by an expose into Sweden’s dark sex trade.

Don’t look here if you’re expecting a slew of slaughtered streetwalkers and heart-stopping fear. This volume lacks the brutality of its predecessor, with its first 200 pages simply serving as a montage of “where they are now.”

“They” refers to the series’ central characters, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his slippery one-time sidekick Lisbeth Salander. The thing is, Blomkvist hasn’t seen Salander since we encountered her last in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when the duo succeeded in unearthing an aristocratic Swedish family’s shocking secret. Meanwhile, he’s been busy at his magazine, Millennium, planning the publication of the aforementioned expose, along with an accompanying book, the work of promising freelance journalist Dag Svensson and his crack criminologist girlfriend, Mia Johansson.

But when the couple turns up dead - along with Salander’s nefarious legal guardian - the unlikely connection throws our two heroes together, albeit in the encrypted networks of cyberspace. With traces of herself all over both crime scenes, uber-hacker Salander is on the run, while Blomkvist commits himself to clearing her name through clever computing.

Blomkvist isn’t the only one tracking Salander. All of Sweden’s police forces are on her trail, digging into her sordid past. The press eagerly laps up the lascivious details unearthed on Salander - her lesbian tendencies, her association with a “Satanist” all-girl rock band, her alleged dabbling in prostitution, and so on. While some claims are grounded in a grain of truth, the characters who know Salander best continually remind the reader that however atypical her actions may be, they are usually based on her idea of morality.

Even so, the reader is left wondering whether she’s actually the murderer for a solid chunk of pages. But if there’s a point that Larsson makes clearly, it’s that having an active sex life is hardly the mark of a sinful person. In fact, across the first two Millennium books, carnally adroit characters, both good and bad, form a tangled web of exchanged bodily fluids.

Despite his grim subject matter, Larsson manages to use his books to pay homage to one of his country’s most famous writers, the children’s author Astrid Lindgren. Through books one and two, the sleuthing Blomkvist is plagued by the nickname “Kalle Blomkvist,” after Lindgren’s fictional boy detective. And in this volume, Larsson makes Salander his own Pippi Longstocking - only one who has no problem kicking hoodlums in the head.

The Girl Who Played with Fire has an ending that’s disappointingly chopped off, yet it leaves readers eager for the next installment, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

The technique of leaving readers salivating for more no doubt helped Larsson posthumously become the second biggest selling writer in the world in 2008, according to statistics compiled by AbeBooks.

And so it appears Larsson was right to align himself with Lindgren’s celebrity, as he is poised to join her among the ranks of Scandinavia’s greatest novelists.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Author: Stieg Larsson

Genre: Fiction, Crime

Publisher: Knopf

By Hannah Bae [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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