The Short Version: Lisbeth Salander is clinging to life after having been shot in the head – and she’s facing multiple counts of attempted murder among other charges. Mikael Blomkvist takes it upon himself to help save his friend and, in the process, uncovers that Lisbeth has been centrally connected to a decades-long conspiracy within the highest levels of the Swedish intelligence service & police force. The Wennerström affair will be child’s play next to this scoop, but Millenium and all the friends of Salander will be putting their very lives on the line with no guarantee of success…
The Review: I’ve been waiting a long time for this. (“I’ll bet you have.”) Because I’m arguably a crazy person, I waited for this paperback. I just couldn’t bring myself to read the hardcover. Friends laughed at me, offered me their copies, and tried to spoil the story by tricking me into watching the third film. But I prevailed. Nice try, Vintage, but I held out and bought the paperback, even though it came out a ridiculous 21 months after the hardcover was published.
The interesting thing is that I was thus forced to pick up this final piece of the series not only after it became a worldwide hit and then faded… but after the American remake of the first film and after having spent nearly two years with a huge cliffhanger hanging over my head. The plot of the second book propels the reader directly into this book… but not having that rocket blast made this book a little harder to engage with at first. Interestingly, it’s perhaps the most engaging of the trilogy – but reading it at such a remove made the flaws of the trilogy quite apparent.
First, the engaging part. It’s a book that perhaps is most uniquely suited to Larsson’s unique style of writing. The sequence at Salander’s trial where Blomkvist’s sister absolutely shreds the prosecution is easily one of the most gripping pieces of legal-thriller writing I’ve ever encountered. It’s so well done that you want to stand up and cheer. He’s playing to the crowd, of course, but it’s so damn good that you don’t really care. Similarly, the tension behind the various political double-crosses and the hunt to discover this story before someone gets hurt was palpable throughout much of the novel. The pulse of the other novels was suddenly justified, in a way: the montage was still people highlighting photocopies but suddenly there was a real life & death equivalent. I think it was the political side of things that really got Larsson going – and the fact that he plays with a much larger ensemble cast here. Berger gets a fair amount of time leading the plot and the minor characters who show up and play larger roles here are all excellently engaging. It’s fun to spread it around – and while our heroine Salander is laid up in the hospital for most of the book, she’s still the center of the story. She’s still the reason we’re sticking around and she’s still the most engaging character. I can look past any and every flaw in the series because of Salander and how fascinating she is.
The problems, though, are far more in number than I originally thought. Everyone always sort of acknowledged that while Larsson wasn’t a good writer, he was strangely captivating. This is still true, to be sure. There’s something magnetic, hypnotic about his prose and the way twenty pages will flash by before you’re even aware of it. You stay up reading this book because it’s just pulling you along, even if it’s mostly just a conversation between two old guys about something that doesn’t even matter. This isn’t Dan Brown-esque pull-you-along, where each chapter ends in a cliffhanger to force you to keep turning the page. It’s something much simpler – a creation set into motion that is being described by a really good journalist. That’s why we read these books, flaws and all: because they feel like an excellently derived journalistic endeavor. Think Lawrence Wright’s work, for example. There’s an element of “I’m reading a piece in the New Yorker” as much as there’s an element of “I’m reading a gripping crime novel” to the whole trilogy – but most clearly so in this book.
But boy does it lag now and then. Some of the plotlines seem to go nowhere for the longest freaking time and both this & the first book have the unfortunate characterization of going on for FAR too long after you thought they ended – although I personally appreciated the eventual conclusions of both of them. But I didn’t need to hear about Salander going off and living in Gibraltar for a few months – or actually, what I should say is that I didn’t need to see it. All I needed was to hear about it and maybe not even that. This is the other edge of the journalist-writer sword: every detail is included because that’s what journalists are supposed to do. But it isn’t necessarily what a good author does.
Still, I loved this book. I loved the plot – the political bent naturally hit one of my sweet spots – and I loved seeing all of the characters really getting into the action. And it was wide-reaching, believable action. There were, retrospectively, some issues with the action in the second book, but this one feels right. It flows, it speeds, and it crackles. It felt like a direct descendant of John le Carré’s Smiley novels and I think I actually appreciated the book (and the trilogy, retroactively) for having recently read the Karla Trilogy.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I can’t, in good conscience, rate the book higher. In fact, I think I’d actually retroactively lower The Girl Who Played With Fire to a straight 4. There are just too many problems. But, that said, I believe that the trilogy taken as a whole gets a 6 for sheer worldview. I’m not going to qualify that as such on any ratings or even in tags or anything here on this blog… but the series itself is such a colossal achievement that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Lisbeth Salander alone is a triumph of imagination. The rest of the series, everything combined together, is truly something to behold for its almost magical ability to captivate audiences. It is an absolute tragedy that Larsson passed before his ten-book series could be realized and I do sincerely hope that we someday see the publication of at least book #4 – it would be a shame to never hear from these fantastic characters ever again.