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Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A-The Girl Who Played With FireSwede Stieg Larsson, a journalist and editor who died in 2004, wrote the internationally best-selling Millennium series: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008) was the first, and the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, will be published in America next year. The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second in the series, reprises Lisbeth Salander, hacker extraordinaire.

The Story: During an investigation of sex trafficking in Sweden, a husband-and-wife journalism team and a third man, an attorney, are murdered in Stockholm. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander—either an eccentric genius or a scourge on society, depending on the reader’s perspective—has an unpleasant connection to one of the victims, and she becomes the prime suspect when evidence links her to the scene. Mikael Blomkvist, editor of Millennium magazine, which was to have run the reporters’ exposé, can’t believe that Lisbeth could have done such a thing. But as she reinvents herself, in part as a way of forgetting Blomkvist and their brief relationship, Lisbeth slowly reveals details of her own past that could further implicate her in the crimes.
Knopf. 503 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307269980

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"I have to say that these books grabbed me and kept me reading with eyes wide open with the same force as the best of the series on the TV monitor. … The books are so good, in fact, that I have to keep reminding myself that they are genre novels, not mainstream fiction, so I shouldn’t think about Salander as if she were a figure out of fiction with a larger vision and grander heights." Alan Cheuse

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If the thriller part of Larsson’s exceptional novel is the icing, more profound elements are the philosophical cake. … The way Larsson ends it screams for a sequel; while it ties up certain aspects of this singular contemporary saga, it leaves other juicy ones to be explored." Carlo Wolff

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Given the enormous craft shown in the first two books, it’s not stretching it to say that Larsson will be remembered as one of the most revered writers of the early 21st century. He’s blessed with both depth and killer wit." Joy Tipping

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"While The Girl [w]ith the Dragon Tattoo read like a Nordic Silence of the Lambs, its dynamic, brawny sequel, The Girl Who Played [w]ith Fire, reanimates the tropes of the political thriller. … Formally, at least, [it] is a muscle car. But a European engine purrs beneath its hood." Daniel Mallory

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Girl Who Played [w]ith Fire, Larsson at last gives readers a full accounting of how Lisbeth has been shaped by her tragic past. … With just a few exceptions, as when the action backtracks to show Lisbeth’s version of events or there’s yet another slip-up at the police station, Larsson steadily builds the tension until it’s nearly impossible to put this book down." Kathe Connair

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark Dragon Tattoo—Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here—it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salander’s traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion. … As he did in Dragon Tattoo, Mr. Larsson … mixes precise, reportorial descriptions with lurid melodramatics lifted straight from the stock horror and thriller cupboard." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Here is a writer with two skills useful in entertaining readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest; and parceling out information in a consistently enthralling way. The sharp-eyed may catch Larsson leaning on coincidence a bit too often in the new book, but overall his storytelling is so assured that he can get away with these peccadilloes." Dennis Drabelle

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3 of 5 Stars
"Larsson’s novels emphasize character as much as crime. But Fire plods where Dragon Tattoo built suspense. … Thankfully, the new story’s second half crescendos to a jaw-dropping, suspense-filled finale." Cody Corliss

Philadelphia Inquirer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"What Larsson has done is akin to enlisting two huge, enticing stars, then keeping them separated for much of the action, united only through e-mail. Consequently, Dragon Tattoo proves the more rewarding of the two books, even as its plot snowballs in the final chapters, growing improbably convoluted and more violent than necessary, a failing of many contemporary mysteries." Karen Heller

Critical Summary

By most accounts, the follow-up to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as successful a second installment in a crime series as we’re likely to see. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Larsson explored Lisbeth Salander, a swirl of contradictions and evasions, with a depth that eludes most crime writers. In fact, this is Lisbeth’s book (Mikael Blomkvist is still around, of course, though he plays second fiddle here to his erstwhile love interest), and Larsson has readers eating out of his hand with a plot that simmers before coming to a full boil. Only one critic cited an overly convoluted story line. It’s a shame that only one book remains to be published in America, though rumors continue to circulate regarding a fourth book in progress when the author died unexpectedly in 2004.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Have you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? How did your knowledge—or lack of knowledge—about that novel affect your reading of this one?
2. Discuss the prologue. What did you think was going on? At what point did you fully understand it?
3. On page 26-27, Larsson writes, “Within mathematics, assertions must always be proven mathematically and expressed in a valid and scientifically correct formula.” What does this have to do with the plot of the novel? Why is Salander so intrigued by mathematics?
4. Outwardly, Salander is supremely self-assured. Why does she have breast augmentation surgery?
5. Ultimately, does Salander's agreement with Nils Erik Bjurman pay off? In what ways?
6. Revenge is a major theme of the novel. Who seeks it, and what are the results?
7. Discuss gender politics as they affect the plot: the treatment of Salander, Erika Berger, Miriam Wu, Sonja Modig, and the trafficking of Eastern European women. What do you think Larsson was trying to say about the role of women in society?
8. On page 131, Berger thinks about Blomkvist: “He was a man with such shifting traits that he sometimes appeared to have multiple personalities.” Given that the reader is allowed inside Blomkvist's head, does this seem like an accurate description to you? How is Berger right in her assessment, and how is she wrong?
9. Twice in the novel, Salander and Blomkvist refer to his assertion that “friendship is built on two things—respect and trust.” Who is a true friend to Salander? Is she a true friend to anyone? What about Blomkvist? Is he a good friend to Salander, to Berger, and to others?
10. Discuss the arrangement agreed to by Berger, Blomkvist, and Gregor Beckman. How does this benefit each of them? Does it hurt them?
11. When Dag Svensson and Mia Johansson were murdered, what was your first response? Who did you think was the killer? Who did you think was Bjurman's killer?
12. Why does Blomkvist give Salander the benefit of the doubt, when so many others don't?
13. When newspaper articles begin to appear featuring interviews with long-ago acquaintances of Salander, did it change your perception of her character? Discuss the nature of truth in these instances: is it possible both sides were remembering accurately?
14. Discuss Dr. Peter Teleborian. What role does he play, and why?
15. Why does Berger put off telling Blomkvist about her new job? What will the ramifications of the new job be?
16. On page 403, Salander thinks, “There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.” What is the significance of this statement? How does Salander use this notion to guide her actions?
17. On page 580, Blomkvist calls Salander “the woman who hated men who hate women.” Is this an accurate assessment? How did she end up this way? How does it affect her behavior?
18. In what ways is Salander like her father and half brother? In what ways is she different?
19. Toward the end of the novel, does Blomkvist do the right thing by having Berger deliver only part of the story to Jan Bublanski and Modig? What do you think he should have done?
20. Holger Palmgren tells Dragan Armansky on page 614, “What happens tonight will happen, no matter what you or I think. It's been written in the stars since [Salander] was born.” Why does he feel this way? Is he right? How does his inaction affect the outcome of the story?
21. Discuss the ending. Were you satisfied? What more, if anything, would you like to have had happen?
22. If Stieg Larsson were still alive, what one question would you most like to ask him?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.