When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I enjoyed it but did find myself wondering what all the fuss was about. Now I agree with Norm – I found this book to be a much stronger, more focused, more engaging book all around than the first in the series.
In the second of the Millennium Trilogy (I always feel a little awkward saying that since it was not planned as a trilogy, but rather as a 10-book series), we switch between the perspectives of many characters but in every case they revolve around two: ‘Kalle’ Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. Salander has gone on a long trip around the world (covered in the first section of the book) and returns to Sweden to set up a carefully isolated life, supported by her extraordinary skills for subterfuge and a fortune that she acquired in the first book. She has cut off relations with Blomqvist, unwilling to be hurt by him, and instead resumes a low-stakes friendship with Mimmi, who helps her concealment by living in her apartment and forwarding her mail. Millenium, the muckraking publication where Blomqvist works, is preparing a bombshell issue, to be followed by a book, on sex trafficking, naming many prominent politicians, businessmen, and even police as patrons of an organized industry that exploits women. When soon before publication the two principle authors are murdered and Salander’s scumbag guardian is shot with the same gun, one with Salander’s prints on it, she becomes the prime suspect.
The sections where we see the story from Salander’s perspective were the most compelling for me. Not only is she an interesting character (with admittedly larger-than-life characteristics), the story has more verve and energy when she’s on the page. I was disappointed when she disappears from the story and the focus switches to the hunt for the supposedly insane and violent killer. But that, too, grew on me, particularly as the police involved begin to realize that the two pictures they have of their suspect – that she’s an unbalanced, illiterate, and extremely violent psychotic who spent much of her childhood confined in a mental hospital versus a competent, principled, and brilliant professional – are incompatible and that throws a major wrench into their investigation.
One reason I thought this book was an improvement was the focus and pacing. With the exception of the introductory section (Salander’s travels) the book drills down into one issue: who killed the journalists and the guardian, and how is Salander involved? The fist book seemed uncertain whether to present a locked room mystery, a financial thriller, or an all-out shocker; the parts of the plot seemed to be struggling to cohere, and the tone was wobbly. Second, the shocking reality behind the crimes in Fire, once exposed, is not as outlandish and overblown as in the first book; it’s more motivated and believable, and therefore packs more punch. Finally, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ended less with a bang and more in a dwindling away of energy. That’s certainly not the case here. The auxiliary characters are better developed, and I found myself much more interested in and compelled by Salander in this book. She still has the super-woman characteristics that make her slightly cartoonish, but the backstory we learn in this book is much more believable, with less shock factor and more nuance.
For me, she is becoming human, and that makes her far more interesting.