The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson (2009). 630 pages, Vintage.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (2010). 576 pages, Knopf.
OK, so I finally understand what all the fuss is about. I know who Lisbeth Salander is. I understand why Daniel Craig was cast as Mikael Blomkvist. I see why these three novels have been on the bestseller list for… well, forever now. I get why there’s an obsession as to what may or may not be sitting on Stieg Larsson’s hard drive after his death, and why his family is fighting over the rights to publish his final novel – which might not even exist. I understand why friends of mine have read all three books back-to-back in one obsessive weekend.
In short, these books actually are as gripping and involving as everyone has been telling me they are. I admit it.
Collectively, these three books are known as “The Millennium Trilogy” (even though I keep thinking of them as “The Girl Who” books). The name comes from the fictional magazine “Millennium” that the main character (as well as several other characters in the book) works for. “Millennium”, the magazine, is a hard-hitting, expose magazine that practices real, true journalism – the investigative kind. Nothing like “Millennium” exists in the United States that I know of, although every now and then Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker might publish articles of the type described in the book.
So what are the plots? Well, all three books are taught mystery-thrillers, so I’m not going to spoil anybody’s fun by giving away too much. Briefly:
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first of the three books. Mikeal Blomkvist, a co-founder and reporter for Millennium magazine in Stockholm, Sweden, has just been convicted of libel. He wrote and published a scathing article taking down a corrupt businessman, but his sources didn’t come through, and he was not able to prove his case. (off to the side comment: I do wish there was an addendum to this book that explained a bit about the Swedish legal system, because what Mikeal is convicted of not only would not be a crime of any sort in the United States, it wouldn’t even make it as a civil lawsuit). Mikael is sentenced to 90 days in jail, and takes a leave of absence from his position at Millennium.
At the same time, we follow the life and exploits of 23-year-old Lisbeth Salander, a researcher and computer hacker of considerable skills. Unfortunately for her – and a secret to almost everyone she knows – Lisbeth is a ward of the state, having been declared mentally incompetent when she was 12 years old. The details of why are very murky, yet highly suspicious. As such, she has an assigned “guardian” who controls her money and citizenship status. Even more unfortunately for Salander, her current guardian is a sadistic rapist who uses his position of power to control her in the worst way. She plots revenge…
These two characters and storylines intersect when Mikeal accepts an offer from an eccentric millionaire to solve the case of his neice’s murder – a murder which occured 40 years ago, a murder where no body was ever found. Through a series of interesting-yet-unlikely twists (as with any thriller), Mikeal ends up hiring Lisbeth as his research partner in solving the murder. But of course, it’s not as simple as that, and together they uncover a deadly conspiracy that has links to both of them…
The Girl Who Played With Fire starts a year after the end of the previous book. Mikeal’s reputation and position at Millennium have been restored after the events of the previous book. Right now, he’s working with an up-and-coming new writer on an article that will expose the sex-slave trade in Sweden. He’s got ironclad sources, and has identified police officers and government officials who not only had their hands in the till – they were also making use of underage and abused prostitutes. But weeks before the article goes to press, someone murders both the article’s writer and the writer’s wife. And the main suspect is… Lisbeth Salander.
Because, as we follow in a simultaneous storyline, Lisbeth’s guardian has decided to seek revenge for the come-uppence he received from her during the first book. And in doing so, he’s called in favors from some very, very unscrupulous types. One thing leads to another, and as it turns out, those same unscrupulous types have their own very good reasons from wanting Lisbeth Salander either dead or locked away forever in a mental institution.
So, while Mikeal attempts to solve the murder of his friends – knowing full well Lisbeth could not have committed the crime – Lisbeth must hunt down the people who want her dead, even while she herself is being hunted by the police for murder. As the novel ends, Lisbeth is seriously wounded, and one mystery has morphed into another, much bigger one.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest picks up immediately where the previous book left off, literally an hour or so later. Lisbeth is in the hospital, recovering from near-fatal wounds. The man who tried to kill her, who is also seriously wounded, lies just a few doors down in the same hospital. And some shadowy figures who were behind the scenes in the previous book move into the foreground here. Because they want both Lisbeth and her failed killer dead.
Meanwhile, Mikeal, having rescued Lisbeth at the end of the previous book, works tirelessly on her upcoming trial. He brings in his own sister – a lawyer who specializes in women’s rights – to represent his friend in court. But the conspiracy that Mikeal and Lisbeth are unravelling reaches deep into the walls of Sweden’s security police (their equivalent of the CIA), and there are people there who will stop at nothing to make sure the case never gets solved.
The first book can be read as a standalone thriller. But I warn you – the second and third have to be read together, as they are pretty much Volume 1 and Volume 2 of a single, continuous story. I can’t imagine how annoying it must have been for folks who read The Girl Who Played With Fire and then had to wait a year for the third book to come out. Luckily, if you haven’t read any of these books yet, you won’t have that problem. Just be sure to get the 2nd and 3rd one at the same time!
Kindle notes: All three books are formatted well, and don’t have any noticeable typos or layout errors. The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is the only one of the three that does not have a linked table of contents, a strange omission since the other two have quite nice ones.
I was impressed with several characters and concepts in these books, aside from the complex conspiracies and thrilling mysteries. One example is the details of crimes and policing in another country. For example, the entire concept of “guardianship” that causes so much trouble for Lisbeth in all three books? As far as I know, we don’t have anything even remotely like that in our country. In fact, I’ve never even heard of such a thing, and I wonder how in the world it got started in Sweden.
Another is the sensible attitude towards extra-marital affairs, and sex in general. In all three books, Mikeal conducts an ongoing affair with the editor of his magazine. What’s unusual is that this goes on with the knowledge and understanding of the woman’s husband! Years ago, the couple reached an understanding, and every now and then she goes off and spends the night with Mikel. Her husbands tells her to have a good time, and he’ll see her tomorrow. They have a happy, long-lasting marriage, and the other two have a happy, long-lasting affair. It struck me as the most sensible approach I’ve ever encountered to this situation. Sometimes people really do fall in love with more than one person, and just accepting it as such makes it so much easier on everyone involved. Europeans are so much more sensible about sex matters than us puritanical Americans…
And lastly, I’m impressed with the devotion to the craft of investigative journalism as practiced at Millennium magazine. Of all the fictional things described in the book, this is the one I most wish was real. Every single reporter at Millennium really, truly believes in truthful, unbiased reporting of hard, cold facts. They will not cozy up to anyone in power, and consider it their sacred duty to expose any and all failings they encounter. They protect their sources even upon threat of death, and never give up, no matter what. If such a magazine actually existed in the real world – if such reporters and journalists actually existed in the real world – then the world itself would be a better place by far.
So if you’re looking for exciting, globe-spanning, tightly plotted, suspenseful, and thrilling mysteries with a large dose of spies and international conspiracies thrown in for good measure, then I urge you to run out and get all three of these books.
Because you won’t be able to stop at just one.