This book is when you realize that the Millennium trilogy is really all about Lisbeth Salander. It takes up all the threads woven into place in Dragon Tattoo and starts to make a tapestry of them: Lisbeth’s mysterious back-story, what’s she’s done with the fortune she stole from Hans Erik Wennerström, the continued consequences of her guardian Bjurman raping her (and the revenge that is currently represented by the tattoo on his stomach), and the reappearance of her former guardian, Holger Palmgren — not to mention her relationship with Mikael Blomkvist. The book is structured around solving the murders of two people who were working on an exposé on sex trafficking for Millennium, and due to unforeseen circumstances, it’s Lisbeth the police are hunting for the murder. The police, Blomkvist and Millennium, and Lisbeth’s old employer, Dragan Armansky, are all trying to solve the murders at the same time, and they all have different reasons for doing so. What they really end up investigating is Lisbeth’s life, and they find secrets there that even she didn’t know.
Also fulfilled from Dragon Tattoo is Dragan Armansky’s premonition that Lisbeth would be the perfect victim, which sounds kind of offensive at first, but after having read this book, I see what he means. She is other in almost every way imaginable, and thus she is the perfect bogeyman, the perfect scapegoat. The media in the novel plays on Sweden’s (and our very human) cultural obsession with social deviance; it’s the kind of simplistic scapegoating that always assumes that different equals evil. She is presumed to be the murderer based on the preconceived notions of men who don’t even know her. Without directly stating it, Larsson is indicting the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and the men who run it — they let their prejudices about mental illness, sexuality, gender (the assumption that Lisbeth is a prostitute, just because she likes sex) influence the way they investigate these murders. And of course he sticks some men in there who just hate women, because they feel threatened by them.
The one criticism I have isn’t really a criticism, as it doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story. The book is structured so that the reader may be left in doubt as to whether Salander committed the murders, but it’s almost a waste of time. There is never a moment’s doubt about Salander’s innocence. We’ve come to know and trust her over the course of a book and a half, and we know that she would never murder two innocent people, especially people who have devoted a significant portion of their lives to exposing the men who make a living — or gain sexual pleasure — from exploiting and harming women.
Structurally, The Girl Who Played With Fire is also notable for the distinct lack of interaction — save for in its last two pages — of its two leads. Blomkvist and Salander spend the whole book apart, as Salander isn’t sure how to deal with her feelings for him, or with the hurt pride that comes with them. One of the things I like most about their relationship is how stupid Lisbeth feels for loving Blomkvist. She has no capacity for understanding her own feelings, or the feelings of others, and can’t fathom that Blomkvist might really care for her, even if it’s not in the way she wishes. She expects the worst of people, and for just a second there she let herself believe Blomkvist was different, so it was all the more painful for her when she realized she’d let him in where he could hurt her the most. It makes me sad. (Incidentally, I think that Rooney Mara did an impeccable job conveying that tender and guarded emotionality in Fincher’s film, something that I felt was lacking in Noomi Rapace’s version of Lisbeth, and that’s probably why I prefer the Fincher film over the Swedish original.)
Lastly, I just want to take a minute to talk about the unbelievable badassery of Lisbeth digging herself out of her own grave. I just love her so much.