Thursday, October 07, 2010

the second-last book I read

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson.

So here we are again, then. At the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, our kooky anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander has just concluded a bewilderingly involved financial scam at the expense of crooked financier Hans-Erik Wennerström which has netted her a cool 3 billion kronor (about 300 million quid). She's also distanced herself from her erstwhile sleuthing colleague and lover Mikael Blomkvist, out of concern that they were Getting Too Close and she was starting to Have Feelings. Tell me more of this thing called love, James T Kirk.

Anyway, Salander decides to escape the Blomkvist situation by going on a round-the-world trip for a year or so, during the course of which she has a bit of a makeover by having a boob job and having one of her more obvious tattoos removed. She winds up in Grenada where she spends her time chilling out at the hotels and coffee shops, and also sexually initiating a local teenage boy in exchange for some ganja. All very idyllic, except for the occasional shouting and wife-slapping that's going on in the hotel room next door, a room which turns out to be occupied by an American evangelical preacher and his wife.

Meanwhile Blomkvist and the team at Millennium magazine are preparing to go public with a feature and associated book on the subject of sex trafficking, a scoop brought to them by Dag Svensson and his girlfriend Mia Johansson. Blomkvist has been making intermittent attempts to contact Salander, but to no avail; little does he know, however, that she has installed some spyware on his computer that allows her to monitor his hard drive from anywhere in the world. Handy.

After some exciting holiday activities in Grenada (getting caught in a hurricane, foiling the preacher's attempt to murder his wife, the usual sort of thing) Salander returns to Sweden. After catching up on a bit of computer spying she gets wind of the Svensson/Johansson story and decides to pay them a visit. The next thing we know, Svensson and Johansson have been brutally executed, Salander's fingerprints are all over the gun (conveniently left at the scene) and she's on the run from the police. Naturally all the evidence points to Salander's guilt, equally naturally Blomkvist is convinced she didn't do it, and starts a clandestine dialogue with her via his hacked computer.

But if Salander didn't commit murder, who did? And why? Could it be connected to the exposé they were about to publish, which was going to name names including some high-ranking police officers and government officials? And what about Salander's legal guardian and former sexual tormentor Nils Bjurman, who was also found murdered? And what was Salander doing getting involved with the sex trafficking case in the first place?

Not entirely surprisingly the answers lie back in Salander's troubled past - committed to a young offenders' institution in her early teens, she was then systematically abused by the psychiatrist assigned to her case; after running away from a series of foster-families she ended up being assigned to the legal guardianship of cuddly old Holger Palmgren, and after a stroke rendered him incapable of carrying out his duties, nasty pervy old Nils Bjurman.

But, still, what's the specific connection to Svensson and Johansson's sex trafficking case? The answer involves the mysterious Zala (short for Zalachenko) and some of his unsavoury sidekicks, most notably a Swedish chapter of the Hells Angels and a giant blond bloke who seems impervious to pain. As keen as the police are to track down Salander, these guys are even keener, and they have motorbikes and chainsaws and stuff like that. The eventual climax turns on the nature of Salander and Zalachenko's connection (which anyone who can read the first four letters of each name might have had a guess at beforehand) and the nature of the incident that got Salander committed to the institution in the first place. As this is the second book of a trilogy things are resolved as satisfyingly as they can be while still leaving a few titbits to lure the reader on to the third book.

As with the first book this bowls along very grippingly, as with the first book it's far from perfect though. It takes a while to really get going; I reckon it's only about 350 pages in (of a total of 560 or so) that the action really starts to heat up. Also, the prologue involving Salander in Grenada is a bit odd - the reader would tend to assume that the attempted murder there and Salander's foiling of it would be woven into the subsequent story in some way, but no, that bit just seems to be tacked on to reinforce her heroic credentials and underline (as if it were necessary) that she really hates men who abuse women, and is likely to get all Bud White on their ass at the drop of a hat. Back in Sweden, by the time Salander has foiled various attacks on her by men several times her size and tazered them in the balls, kicked them in the face, shot them in the foot, and so on, she's starting to come across as some sort of implausible cross between Lara Croft and James Bond. On the plus side, at least this one ends with some climactic revelations, shooting and axe-wielding at a remote cottage, rather than the anti-climactic ending of the first book.

Again, this is a lot of fun, but let's not kid ourselves that there's any sort of genre-busting literary revolution going on here. These are good, pretty intelligent thrillers, with an interestingly quirky heroine (who is just starting to veer into slightly irritating Mary Sue territory), and that's all. If you're on a sun-lounger by a swimming pool with a cold beer beside you, though, as I was when I read it, then it fits the bill pretty much perfectly.

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