Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire

I read the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy over the summer, when my mother visited for a week and unwisely brought the book in her carry-on. I hijacked the book whenever we weren’t otherwise occupied with coffees or my host sister’s wedding, without as much thought for whether she might want to read it, and finished the book in six days.

This seems now like the ideal way to read one of Stieg Larsson’s books. My time with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was so limited that I had to push through the dull parts, and later on couldn’t give much thought to, say, the striking similarities between Stieg Larsson and one of the trilogy’s main characters, Mikael Blomkvist. (Since reading the Stieg Larsson: Swedish Narcissist piece on the Millions I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that this trilogy is kind of like my stock of stories about the noble Peace Corps Volunteer Elena Ruby, out digging wells, teaching English, delivering babies, and saving the world.)

After finishing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo my thoughts on Stieg Larsson as a writer and Lisbeth Salander as a character were mixed, which is basically to say I had some suspicions that the book wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but that I had read it so quickly I couldn’t put voice to any of my doubts about its quality. I just finished the second book of the trilogy, though, The Girl Who Played with Fire (mailed by my mom – thanks mom!) and having had more time to enjoy, or live with it, its prose, I am now slightly better equipped to voice the things I like and don’t like about the books.

Stieg Larsson is not, to state the obvious, a great master of prose. After about two hundred pages The Girl Who Played with Fire became a pretty interesting, if not gripping, read, but the first two hundred pages went so slowly that I thought I might expire before reaching the interesting parts promised by the gazillions of people who are reading and talking about these books. I am not sure how best to describe Larsson’s writing – because he writes about things with an exhaustive depth that yet fails to reveal anything about his characters or the world he’s writing about. He spends pages describing Lisbeth Salander’s trip to Ikea to stock her apartment, the details of how she found a new apartment, and before that her year-long trip around the world, but fails to reveal anything about Lisbeth as a person.

I’ve finished the first two books in his trilogy, and I will probably read the third, but that I’ll be waiting for it to come out in paperback, then for my mom to read it and mail it to me, doesn’t bother me. I won’t be going to Amazon to buy the last book for my kindle, as I did with The Hunger Games trilogy. And this is because ultimately, despite the hundreds of pages of back story Larsson provides us with, I don’t feel like his characters are real people, and I don’t care what happens to them. (Lisbeth Salander’s nearly been kidnapped? Huh. So-and-so and his pregnant wife have been shot, execution-style, in their apartment? Huh. So-and-so’s been shot in the head and buried alive? Interesting but still, Huh.)

This statement takes me dangerously close to the realm of “I didn’t like the characters so I didn’t like the book”-ism, which is not what I’m trying to get at. I just don’t care one way or the other about Larsson’s characters, and that makes it hard for me to care about the books in any lasting fashion. It’s not that I like or dislike Larsson’s characters, that I think they’re likeable or unlikeable; rather, I think they are occasionally interesting, but drawn in such a way that they often seem, despite the amount of space given to documenting their histories, flat. And what’s more, I can’t help feeling Larsson got tired of his own stories by the time he reached the end of his manuscripts – the trilogy’s first book ended suddenly and unsatisfyingly, with the case being investigated by Blomkvist and Salander wrapped up in just a few pages after hundreds of pages of background information. When I finished that book, I wanted more – not more description of say, Blomkvist’s bedroom technique, but a more fitting close to the case they had spent so much time investigating.

I’ve heard Larsson’s writing of women alternately praised and reviled, and on that front I land somewhere in the middle. His portrayal of Salander and the manner in which she takes control of her body and life, and responds to those men who “hate women,” is in some sense inspiring, but again, feels oddly flat. Despite the praising of Salander as some sort of feminist hero, she doesn’t read so positively to me – whether because her actions are balanced by Blomkvist’s ability to fall into bed with all kinds of women, victims of sexual abuse and all, and make them forget what’s come before, or because Salander responds to the sadism of men who hate women with actions just as sadistic as theirs.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
didn’t, though, seem as offensive on that front as did the first book. This one has a different offense though; that the mystery we devote so much time to unraveling is explainable by Salander the entire time, and that about a hundred pages before the end much of the “mystery” is revealed in a monologue by one of the characters. There are books that can reveal aspects of their plot early on, or by an “accident” of publication (as with The Hunger Games trilogy – I knew that Katniss would survive the Games in the first book because there were two to follow, but it made no difference in my interest in the trilogy), but this ain’t one of them. By such tricks of writing, by having one character (Salander) knowing the whole story the whole time, and another (Niedermann) revealing most of the unclear plot points partway through the book, and another (Blomkvist) figuring out the whole thing largely while the reader’s eyes are trained elsewhere, Larsson reveals himself to have been a lazy writer.

Countless pages spent describing a character’s reasons for getting breast implants (then explaining again, twenty pages later, then again, a hundred pages later), or the intricacies of publishing a magazine, or just how two characters came to know each other doesn’t, then, mark a writer as energetic. This is something that a lot of people working on NaNoWriMo have been discovering this month, as I have sadly discovered in years past; it can be a hell of a lot easier to write at length (proven by this post, maybe) than it is to write well, or compellingly. The most I can say about this book is that I finished it but that I mostly pushed through so that I could remove it from the stack of books I’m currently working on. I guess this isn’t the worst thing you can say about a book, but nor is it the best.



I enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but found that the last two (especially the third one) were uninteresting. They almost felt like different books. When I was traipsing about on the internet, I learned that Larsson actually intended to have this series be a ten book series, but he had a heart attack after the final editing of his first book. Which may be why the first book felt a little more rounded out for me — but unfortunately, he never got a chance to edit the last two, so that may be why it fishtails around a bit. There’s quite a bit of controversy and conspiracy associated with his death as well — because he was such an anti-Nazi and would write scathing articles about them in Sweden, conspiracy theorists have suggested that his death wasn’t at all natural. All of that was so interesting for me that I read the final two but felt disappointed in them both (especially the last one).

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

Interesting to hear that, I was vaguely aware of some questions surrounding his death but have never taken that most basic of steps (googling it). That he didn’t have the time to edit this book as much as the first one also goes a long way to explain my reaction to it – I figured that the reason I enjoyed the first one more was just that I read it faster, but as you write it may have a lot to do with the first book receiving more extensive editing.

didn’t know that this was intended to be a 10 book series, either. thanks for sharing all this info that i was too lazy to seek out!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

It’s funny — I had just finished the first book and had jumped online and actually found an English site of Swedish online news. I found the majority of the info there, and almost questioned reading the next two because I was worried that I actually would get sucked into the stories and then be upset that there weren’t any more books to be published! Quite the opposite, though. I did hear as well that they might hire on another writer to continue the series, but…you know how that goes.

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

I haven’t read this trilogy, and I’m torn as to whether I want to or not! So many people seem to enjoy it, yet I’m just not sure it’s my kind of book. I’m kind of glad to hear you didn’t love this one!

Comment by Erin

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What I think what we have here are two problems: the first, as revealed in a recent New Yorker article (“Why People love Stieg Larsson’s Novels”), is a translation issue. The second is an editing issue.

These are books that, with proper translation and editing, could have their punch restored. Why wouldn’t the big publishing companies re-work these texts in order to wring out the last possible dollar in a market starved for Nordic crime novels?

I have read the first two books and enjoyed them, but part of me felt like going through them with a red Stabilo and striking series of pages. Lisbeth’s Caribbean adventure and the boob job before that aren’t necessary… at all. I love coffee and sandwiches too, and will describe them in detail if given the chance. But I’m not an author selling an internationally acclaimed book, either. And Blomqvist’s skills with the ladies become boring – in fact, the film versions skip them almost entirely and don’t suffer for it either.

The originals should be re-edited and re-translated and shortened by at least 50 pages each. I get the feeling that there just wasn’t enough time and that the editions we have now may have been different had Larsson lived.

Great review!

Comment by S

[…] – Into Thin Air (12/20/10) J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring (12/16/10) Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Played with Fire […]

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