The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second novel in Stieg Larsson's wildly popular "Millennium Trilogy," following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and preceding The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The original Swedish version was released in 2006, followed by the English translation in 2009. The original Swedish title was Flickan som lekte med elden, which literally translates as "the girl who played with fire."
The novel begins not long after the conclusion of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. To describe the plot in much detail would involve revealing key plot elements from the first novel, and so I'll keep the summary as basic as possible.
Whereas The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo focused on journalist Mikael Blomkvist's attempt to solve a decades-old murder mystery with the help of unorthodox computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, The Girl Who Played With Fire delves more into Salander's background. Her story is touched on in the first novel and several subplots are set in motion. In The Girl Who Played With Fire, some people who feel that Salander wronged them attempt to seek revenge.
Things become complicated when some of them end up dead, as do a journalist and an academic who had been working with Blomkvist and Millennium magazine to produce an exposé of the sex trafficking industry. Salander is a suspect. As the novel progresses Blomkvist, the police and the reader learn more about her background.
The novel's ending is a cliffhanger, setting the stage for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
Before I get into how I feel about this novel, I should say that I share many of Tem42's thoughts about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I too found the writing style, with its obsessive description of every office layout and every meal, a bit tedious. When Henrik Vanger, the elderly man who enlists Blomkvist to try to figure out what happened to his niece, revealed a certain detail of that mystery I was pretty sure I had one of the outcomes figured out. Several hundred pages later, I turned out to be right.
My favourite thing about murder mysteries is thinking I have it figured out and then having my mind blown at the end. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did not do that, which is part of why I found it disappointing. I was also turned off by what I felt was gratuitous violence (I know, what was I expecting? But I think there's a line between describing a violent crime in sufficient detail and overdoing it).
I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo cover to cover in one sitting only because I was on a six-hour train ride home from my in-laws' place after Christmas. Like Tem42, I felt no pressing need to read the sequels. It was six months before I picked up The Girl Who Played With Fire.
While I think many of the same things that turned me off The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are still present in this book, I enjoyed it quite a lot more. Focusing on the hunt for Salander after a series of murders, The Girl Who Played With Fire is part police procedural. When elements of the book's plot turn out to involve the Swedish government, it takes on the flavour of a political thriller.
Larsson makes heavy use of dramatic irony in this novel. As the police investigate the murders, Blomkvist and Millennium conduct their own independent investigation because the perpetrator or perpetrators of the murders might have information about the story they were pursuing. At various points, either side is working with information that the other side doesn't have. And Salander is absent from the narrative when she becomes a suspect and during the ensuing manhunt, while later chapters explain what she was up to during that time.
I found the story and the writing much more compelling in this novel. I should confess to a love of espionage fiction (a genre that really came out in the third novel), which might have coloured my opinion somewhat.
The book could stand to be much shorter. I'm not sure whether Larsson included some of the details he did as red herrings or because he thought them important for some other reason. In the first part of the book he goes to great pains to bring up Salander's breast implants on a regular basis. The subject was brought up so often that I started to wonder whether this was actually going to be relevant to the plot. Without getting into spoilers, one part of the novel made me wonder whether someone had been impersonating her and that an issue such as a sudden change in her appearance might actually turn out to be a plot point. Then it turned out not to be an issue at all.
Tem42's point about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo involving a "cast of thousands" holds for this book as well. In the midst of a multiple murder investigation, we still learn about the editorial team at Millennium magazine — including quite a lot about their personal lives and habits. We learn a whole lot about the lives of the police officers investigating the case. There are even repeated appearances by one particular character from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who does nothing to advance the plot and who could, frankly, stand to be cut from this novel entirely.
In the end, while I would have given The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a C-, The Girl Who Played With Fire would merit a solid B. Its plot was much more compelling, and it did what the first novel couldn't: it made me want to read the next book.
The Girl Who Played With Fire was made into a Swedish-language film in 2009. A sequel to the English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is in the works. The filmmakers are supposedly filming adaptations of the second and third novels simultaneously.
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl Who Played With Fire
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Tem42's excellent writeup about the first book