Thoughts on books: The Girl Who Played With Fire & The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

by dantewilde

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Often a series can go one of two ways, it can continue on the upward would climb and it can become an epic, or it can tumble and leave for you yearning for book one. Stieg Larsson’s The Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest did the latter. For that reason I’m combining them into one thought, so to speak, because my observations on both are similar. The first installment in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a crime thriller epic with a deep and interesting plot and refreshing characters. On the other hand, the sequels are equally thrilling but with a heavy dose of recapping and repetition, which, while it can serve to be useful, is laden on to the point of annoyance.

Credit where credit is due however, both novels reveal more of the enigma that is Salander. We have a (very effective) teasing out of Lisbeth Salander’s personality, her past and the inside of her mind. This alone makes the novels worth reading. To add to that, there is nothing cheap about Larsson’s story telling, there is no feeling of reproduction and over used storyline but the method does wash toward that direction (the repetition of Larsson’s novels comes from his recaps of the previous books, personality traits and scenes in the books).

For the most part, his suspension of disbelief is effective, and on the moments where it does waver, it’s covered up rather effectively by suspense and intensity. Example, Miriam Wu and Paulo Roberto face off against the feel no pain giant that dominates The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. As you can imagine (although it does seem bleak for a few seconds) our good guy characters come out on top with something that resembles a very painful blow and brings the giant to his knees. Where the suspension of disbelief falters (remember, the giant can’t feel pain) we’re almost too concerned with Wu’s well being to care…almost.

Now, to bring out the knives. Firstly, and this is only a small matter, Mikael Blomkvist drinks more coffee than anyone man should do in a life time. Perhaps I’m ignorant to Swedish coffee rituals but Mikael seldom downs anything other. On a serious note, the close of The Girl Who Played With Fire and the opening of  The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest are seamless. When you open the first pages of the finale, you’re confronted immediately with the aftermath. Plenty of novels will begin with action to draw the reader in, but fewer will pick at the exact moment the previous volume left off.  Consider that a final breath. Because after Lisbeth Salander is shot three times (including one in the head) and buried alive, but she manages to dig herself out of the grave. With a cigarette case. Thankfully, not a cigarette packet. While I admire Larsson’s willingness to destroy his lead character and then bring her back from the dead, the self excavation is too much to believe.

Similarly, her quasi suicidal venture into a hurricane is, although pulse inducing and fast enough to make you feel slightly sick, equally unbelievable. It seems the already over-equipped Salander will do anything except die.  And this only fails the story. She is human enough to suffer through more than her fair share of defeats and injuries but she’s also machine enough to be able to come back from any attack with an outwitting move and fatal blow. Book two of the series deteriorates into a Lisbeth Salander appreciation novel and her abilities not only far out shadow those of her companions, she out shadows even those attempting to take her life.

From this point it feels as though the only thing holding the books together is Larsson’s ability to write action and suspense. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t more than a few heart in the mouth moments, but they are also the best parts of the books. Blomkvist and Salander are racing against time and their deadly enemies to discover the secrets they hold and to answer their questions, in exactly the same way they were doing so in the first novel. It does seem tired and it also feels as though Larsson takes the step into cliche crime writer. A place I was desperately hoping he would avoid, but it seems as though he only gave himself one direction to go.

We’re able to see a lot of growth in Salander’s character. She becomes slightly more extroverted toward Blomkvist, and we’re given a glimpse into her tender side when she braves the hurricane to save her boy lover. That said, these revelations come slowly and while they are not by default a bad thing, you sometimes want to give her a shove (an example of best parts of Larsson’s writing). Her’s isn’t the only character we get to spend time with. Erika Berger’s tenure at a new newspaper is closely watched and becomes an important sub plot. It gives a lot of light and a lot of time to a character we don’t see a lot of in the first installment of the book. Unfortunately Blomkvist stays more or less the same, we see the same resolve that we’ve seen in the prior book(s), but he is driven through books two and three by the deaths of his friends Dag and Mia.

The Girl With Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest are peppered with great moments of writing. And despite the weaknesses of the books, they are page turners and they are entertaining, but this isn’t to say they are risk free entertainment.  The books are certainly worth reading to find out what happens to Salander as a person, but end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is successful enough that is doesn’t need to continue. If you can deal with a little mystery and ambiguity, leave Salander to fester in the back of your mind and from that, the character can continue to grow. Without the threads of Salander’s life trailing off the end of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the sequels aren’t vital reading.

Note: I’ve just begun War & Peace, which is already beyond anything I would have thought. That means there will be a few weeks away from Thoughts On Books, while finish it and write my chapter summaries into something coherent. 

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