Brad's Reviews > The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
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's review
Jul 26, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: swedish-lit, mystery, popular-culture
Read from July 26 to August 02, 2010

I am confident that Stieg Larsson has a reason for this, but Lisbeth Salander is not much of a heroine. Let's list her transgressions from The Girl Who Played With Fire (and these will be deliberately out of context):

1. She forces herself on a 16 year old boy in Granada.
2. She kills a man on the beach during a hurricane.
3. She shuts out Blomkvist for a very long time for a perceived slight, giving him no explanation.
4. She fails to take or show the necessary care with her ex-guardian after his stroke.
5. She alienates everyone else who cares about her.
6. She lives off billions that she stole.
7. She invades the apartment of her "guardian" and threatens his life in the middle of the night.
8. She endangers the lives of friends and innocents.
9. She very nearly burned her father to death when she was a teenager.
10. She pulls a gun on the owner of a car rental agency and shuts him in a broom closet to control him.
11. She commits multiple computer violations, including the hacking of government computers.
12. She carries and uses illegal weapons.
13. She is genuinely ultraviolent.
14. She shoots a man in the foot after macing his eyes, and she tasers another in the testicles.
15. She steals a motorcycle.
16. She chops her father's knee and skull with an axe.
17. She is vengeful in a way that makes Edmond Dantès look like a sissy.

Let's face it, Lisbeth is more than a little bit nasty. And taken a step further, it is safe to say that she is not particularly likable. She is cold, calculating, emotionally irrational, mean, detached, abrasive, unapproachable, unfriendly, selfish, mercenary, vengeful, and more than a few other things most of us would classify as unlikable.

Out of context, Lisbeth Salander is the kind of person who most people would be more than happy to see locked up forever. And if all we had to go on were the reports of newspapers and descriptions of trials, we'd all see it as a failure of the "justice system" if she went free.

Yet we cheer for her in the Millenium Trilogy; we can't seem to help ourselves. And therein lies what Stieg Larsson is trying to tell us with his challenging protagonist -- context is everything.

Larsson isn't simply writing a compelling series of thrillers (and I haven't been so locked into a book, as I was with GWPWF, for a very long time). He isn't simply fishing for a film deal. He isn't just sitting down to write a vapid bestseller. I'd even go so far as to say that Stieg Larsson is not a hack. Nowhere near. He is criticizing the very efficacy of what we so proudly call the "rule of law."

Larsson is suggesting that the "rule of law" fails because it has no room for context. It deals in absolutes (unless you're one of the super-rich or super-influential), and it doesn't give a damn whether you perceived a threat before you lit someone on fire; it doesn't care whether the sixteen year old you're having sex with is mature, in love with you and is totally willing; it doesn't care that you stole the car or killed someone to save a life; it doesn't care that you withheld evidence from the police to protect yourself or someone you love; it doesn't care that you hacked into computers for altruistic reasons; it doesn't care that you were bred to ultraviolence through nature and nurture; it doesn't care about you and it doesn't care about context. It just doesn't care, and because it doesn't care Larsson suggests that we should have a healthy disdain for the "rule of law" and recognize its terrible shortcomings because it is the structure we have to live with whether we like it or not.

Yet with all this, The Girl Who Played With Fire is -- most importantly -- a cracking read. It is fast paced, cinematic in its noirishness, full of suspense, has a genuine twist or two (one of which actually took me by surprise), a cast of characters it is almost impossible not to love and hate (as the mood takes you) -- even thought they are all rather static -- and it ends with a cliff hanger of the first order (I am guessing this is a problem for some readers, but I am a fan of the cliff hanger).

What a shame Stieg Larsson passed from us so soon. I could have read his books for the rest of my life.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Terence (new)

Terence Brad,

Nice review, as usual.

I agree with you (or at least with Larsson as channeled by you :-) that context is everything but don't we need a "rule of law" as well as a "rule of context"? Otherwise, we're a bunch of Raskolnikovs.

Brad Thanks, Terence. I have to admit that I, personally, am not convinced that our dependence on a rule of law is necessary. I wonder if our need is based more on our fear of personal responsibility and a general human need for infantilization than an actual need for safety and control.

But that aside, Larsson seems to see value in the "rule of law," so long as it is coupled with a "rule of context" (nice coining, by the way), and I think his suggestion is that we have the former without the latter.

And he seems to take it a step further, suggesting that the former without the latter is a tyranny, albeit a tyranny most are willing to accept. Yet if our "rule of law" was always flexible enough to engage with a "rule of context," I think Larsson believes ('s tough to work my tense with a man who died so recently) that tyranny would dissolve and we would have a much more just system, if not truly just.

message 3: by Terence (new)

Terence But if we are afraid of personal responsibility and infantalized (for which a strong argument can be made) don't we need some standard against which to measure a just society?

I'm not trying to start an argument here :-) I found your review especially interesting in light of the current climate here in America where "The Rule of Law" has become just another soundbite thrown out by unreflective pundits and ideologues who have no idea what it means.

I agree with your last point about Larsson. The trick is to find a workable balance between the standard and the context. I don't know if this is true or not but I read or heard somewhere that when Buddhists clasp their hands, they always put the right one over the left as a symbol that the heart (i.e., context) should always guide the mind (i.e., rules).

Brad I think you are right that we need a standard against which to measure a just society, and even more so because of our tendencies as a species, but I'm just not convinced that living under a rule of law provides that standard (what you mention was one of the reasons I chose it for this review. I have been following its development into soundbyte meaninglessness over the last couple of years, and it is particularly fascinating to watch those who use it the most). Our long history provides us with plenty of things to measure ourselves against.

Still, as much as I would like to hope that if we were given an opportunity to throw off our infantilization and become truly responsible we could do it, the reality is that we probably can't. Which suggests that my desire and hope is just another unattainable Utopian ideal, albeit one that I am confident I could become a thriving member of.

And all I sense is a good discussion, Terence. No worries. (Come to think of it, though, I suppose I did have an argument in a Star Wars review I wrote recently.)

message 5: by Miriam (new)

Miriam You put this very well, but isn't it a standard trope for action and thriller novels?

message 6: by Brad (last edited Aug 05, 2010 09:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I think Larsson is coming at the theme differently here, although I agree that it is present (albeit unconsciously) in most novels in the genre, Miriam. Most action and thriller novels deal with the issue in a sort of fantasy land -- which leads to my thought that they're not really dealing with it in a conscious way -- wherein the implied contextualization of actions by the hero is limited to the hero getting away with whatever action they've had to take to defeat the villain because it was the "right" thing to do.

Larsson, however, explicitly mentions the tension and inequality between law and context, and GWPWF is leading us directly into a situation where Salander is going to face consequences for her actions regardless of context (at least partially) in the next book.

So I guess I am saying that, perhaps, Larsson is handling the common theme better than his peers, which is what I see setting him apart.

p.s. thanks for that comment, Miriam. I hadn't thought of it from that direction until you prompted me.

Karen Salander is an anti-hero and we cheer for her and feel for her as we would for Holden Caufield.

Brad I agree, Karen. There is something of the anti-hero in Salander, but I tend to genuinely like a great deal of anti-heroes and could even see myself spending time with them, but I don't feel that way about her. In fact, I'm not sure I feel for her at all. I pull for her to make it through her troubles but not much else, and I am not suggesting that is a bad thing. I rather like that I don't like her.

Shannon Carrasco Ok...I am obsessed with these books and I just finished reading Hornet's Nest today. I need something to read that's you know of anything? I've seen your other reviews, so I figure you may have some insight :) Thanks in advance!!

message 10: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I think I am going to read the Wallander books next, Carrasco25. I picked up Faceless Killers, the first of the series.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Good lord, Brad, do you look at *every* book like some literature teacher? ;)

I was careful not to read your list of transgressions because there were some spoilers there, but I did read everything else. Nice review but it's too late for me/early in the morning to say anything intelligent, let alone not covered by these philosophers that have gone before me.

What I do want to add is that Salander clearly has Asberger's Syndrome which I figured out early on in the book before it was mentioned. (Yes, my snobby "I didn't think of that smart stuff but I did figure that out" comment.) Asberger's is in the Austism spectrum so it's extremely difficult to treat. Unfortunately it manifests itself differently in different people which makes it difficult to diagnose. I have a close friend who's a school psychologist whose husband was just diagnosed at age 45 or so. She works with kids with this disorder all the time but it took years for her to figure it out.

Unfortunately, many of the traits are rather unlikeable/uncomfortable. The people I know with the disorder are very difficult to be around because they lack the social interaction skills most people learn early on. The kids I know ask for things that they want but don't get the subtlety of "You are more likely to get it if you stop asking." They keep exhibiting the same behaviors over and over. They often lack emotion and generally can't read nonverbal communication like body language and eye-rolling.

Two novels that I think handle autism well (which most of you have probably read or at least heard about) are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and The Speed of Dark. The latter is particularly of interest because it talks about whether, given the option, would the person with the disorder choose to be "cured"?

But those books are about autism. I'm not familiar with any fiction about Asberger's. There are gobs of nonfiction books but they don't tend to hit the same note of getting inside a person's head.

message 12: by Brad (last edited Jan 22, 2011 09:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad Excellent addition to the thread, Kelly. I've read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I have The Speed of Dark, which I bought online for a group read but when it arrived late I just tossed it on my shelf, and I found the autistic characterization fascinating. I have a feeling I've known some people with Asberger's, but none that have been diagnosed. Anyway, you are absolutely right about Salander's Asberger's being the reason for her behaviour. Nice job catching it early on too.

message 13: by Liz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Liz She is a heroine. In my opinion, each of her "transgressions" has been provoked. I cannot help but think of all of the vengance films that display males as heros for seeking "justice".... :)

message 14: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad As I said, "context is everything."

message 15: by Liz (new) - rated it 4 stars

Liz Right-o. And I agree. :)

message 16: by Brad (last edited Aug 26, 2012 06:25PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad It's been two years since I posted this and you are the first to suggest an alert, Dakota. Methinks not. With the list at the tippy top, the alert speaks for itself.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Whatever did this person say?

I already posted this question but it disappeared. I've had that happen to a number of comments I've left on GR lately. Am I having blackouts or something or have other people experienced this?

message 18: by Brad (new) - rated it 4 stars

Brad I didn't realize the comment was removed. Weird. I guess Dakota decided to take it away. It was a suggestion that my review should be tagged with the spoiler alert.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) Funny because I would think "Let's list her transgressions" would let even a person of limited intellect clue in.

message 20: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen I read your review after I just finished the book and wow it just perfectly sums everything up. I pretty much agree with you on everything, I couldn't have worded it better (:

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