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It’s a Mystery: “She has a bag full of gold just like Pippi Longstocking”

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The Girl Who Played with Fire

By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 2009

Behind Ingmar Bergman’s chilling landscapes lies a hotbed of sex trafficking. The first episode of the most recent PBS mystery series was the Swedish Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked. In it, his detective Kurt Wallander of Ystad dealt head-on with the subject. The first of Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dealt obliquely with Sweden’s not-so-little secret. Now, in the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, he gets down and dirty with the traffickers. They are the centerpiece of this elegantly crafted, complex thriller.

Very much on the scene, in more ways than one, is Lisbeth Salander, the charismatic “bad” girl with the dragon tattoo. She is just about getting used to the idea that she has more than three billion kroner (a lot of dough in any currency), which she had stolen by means of an Internet coup combined with good, old-fashioned fraud:

Salander handled computers as though she had made a pact with the Devil….she was a world class hacker, and within an exclusive international community devoted to computer crime at the highest level—and not only to combating it—she was a legend. She was known online only as Wasp.

After some island hopping in the Caribbean, she has bought herself an outrageously expensive pad in a very posh Stockholm neighborhood (where no one would even think to look for her—befitting her reclusive lifestyle), and is contemplating her future. A future without Mikael Blomkvist the investigative journalist she teamed up with in Dragon Tattoo. He wants to be in her life as a friend. She can’t deal with that. If she can’t have him on her terms, she never wants to see him again. But life, as we know, is often uncooperative. Despite everything, Blomkvist and Salander have an almost cosmic connection.

Blomkvist’s magazine Millenium is about to do a major article on sex trafficking. He and his editor-in-chief, Erika Berger, have called a full staff planning meeting with the guy with the goods and the credentials, Dag Svensson. He’s a freelancer whose girlfriend Mia Johansson, a criminologist and gender studies scholar, is the researcher. Her doctoral thesis: From Russia with Love (an ironic homage to Ian Fleming’s classic novel. Its subtitle: Trafficking, Organized Crime and Society’s Response. Together they’ve done over four years of digging around in the sex trade. Dag gives the Millenium staff an earful:

We have a government which introduced a tough sex-trade law, we have police who are supposed to see to it that the law is obeyed, and courts that are supposed to convict sex criminals—we call the men, the punters, sex criminals since it has become a crime to buy sexual services—and we have the media which write indignant articles about the subject, et cetera. At the same time, Sweden is one of the countries that imports the most prostitutes per capita from Russia and the Baltics.

Blomkvist, of course, wants to know if Svensson can substantiate this:

It’s no secret. It’s not even news. What’s new is that we have met and talked with a dozen girls. Most of them are fifteen to twenty years old. They come from social misery in Eastern Europe and are lured to Sweden with a promise of some kind of job but end up in the clutches of an unscrupulous sex mafia. Those girls have experienced things that you couldn’t even show in a movie. Mia interviewed the girls. What I did was to chart the suppliers and the client base…. At any given time there are about a hundred active girls who are in some way victims of trafficking…and the take is small change….to bring in these relatively modest sums, around a hundred girls have to be raped. It drives me mad.

Blomkvist smiled. He had never met Svensson before, but he felt at once that he was the kind of journalist he liked, someone who got right to the heart of the story. For Blomkvist the golden rule of journalism was that there were always people who were responsible. The bad guys.

And you found some interesting facts?

I can document, for instance, that a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice who was involved with the drafting of the sex-trade laws has exploited at least two girls who came to Sweden through the agency of the sex mafia. One of them was fifteen…. There are three policeman, one of whom works for the Security Police, another on the vice squad. There are five lawyers, one prosecutor, and one judge. There are also three journalists, one of whom has written articles on the sex trade. In his private life he’s into sex fantasies with a teenage whore from Talinn—and in this case it’s not consensual sex play.

Blomkvist is by now, completely hooked. Svensson’s got case studies of the punters, most of them very influential indeed.

I’m thinking of naming names. I’ve got water-tight documentation.

Blomkvist whistled. Since I’ve become publisher again, I’ll want to go over the documentation with a fine tooth-comb. The last time I was sloppy about checking sources I ended up spending three months in prison. [A memory that conjures up the young lady of the Dragon Tattoo.]

Salander, while never part of the sex trade, has an abusive past that is inexorably linked to it. She has experienced unspeakable things. In and out of psych wards and foster homes, always the misfit, drowning in guardians with hefty credentials and her worst interests at heart. She is haunted by a memory she knows only as “All the Evil” but she cannot unlock its meaning. Larsson uses the phrase as her leitmotif. Her early life story is strong evidence that Sweden’s “social services” are pathetic.

Now settled safely into her newly acquired cocoon, suddenly without warning, Lisbeth Salander’s world is turned upside down. Mia Johansson and Dag Svensson, are murdered. Found by Blomkvist shot in their apartment, the murder weapon in plain sight, which the police soon confirm have Salander’s prints on it. And it belongs to her guardian, Advokat Nils Erik Bjurman.

Stieg Larsson; photo by Britt-Marie Trensmar

The manhunt for Salander is on. Heading the police investigation is Criminal Inspector Jan Bublanski, known to his colleagues as Officer Bubble. A misnomer, since he’s sharp as they come and very good at his job. For the most part, the team he assembles is all first rate. There’s only one woman, Sonja Modig, but she’s Bublanski’s personal favorite. The evidence is straightforward. Only two problems. They can’t find a connection between Salander and the victims and they can’t find Salander. Nor can they find Bjurman.

The only photo they have of Salander is from an old passport. The best they can come up with is that she looks like a weird, skinny fourteen year old boy with tattoos. The result: at least one fourteen year old boy gets the scare of his life. The tabloids are having a field day. It doesn’t have the cache of Olaf Palme’s murder, but it’s pretty close. Then they find Bjurman shot dead in his apartment. His body, when examined, has a gross message amateurishly tattooed on his abdomen that could either vindicate or implicate Lisbeth. Her relationship with Bjurman was clearly unconventional. The newspapers are in a feeding frenzy: WANTED FOR TRIPLE MURDER, POLICE HUNT PSYCHOTIC MASS MURDERER or EXTRA! PSYCHOPATH SOUGHT FOR TRIPLE KILLING.

Salander, meanwhile, is following all the media madness with amazement, amusement, and angst. She has hacked into the police department and is up to date on its investigation—not very worthwhile. She has started to communicate with Blomkvist, via the computer, in her maddeningly cryptic way. She’s got some clues, and some questions, and she does know she can trust him. He’s on a parallel track, operating on all cylinders with the dossiers Svensson and Johanssen left behind. He wants to talk to Salander. She refuses. She wants to make him work for any information she might have. This ultimately puts her in mortal danger.

Much to their dismay, and/or amazement, Bublanski and Modig have pieced together a profile of Salander that is a far cry from the disturbed individual the powers that be have incarcerated in grim, frightening institutions. While Blomkvist won’t reveal the exact nature of Salander’s role in the case they solved together, it is clear he is in her debt and completely clueless about her early life. He’s even going to get his sister, the lawyer, to defend her if she needs it. Her former employer at Milton Security, Dragan Armansky, questioned by Bublanski is also positive about her:

What sort of jobs did she do?


Bublanski looked up from his notebook.

Research? He said.

Personal investigations to be more precise.

You mean that she is qualified to do personal investigations for Milton Security?

Not only that. She is by far the best researcher I’ve ever had.

Bublanski put down his pen and frowned.

It sounds as though you have…respect for her.

I have respect for her skills. You won’t find that in her school results or personal

So you know about her background.

The fact that she’s under guardianship and that she had a pretty confused upbringing, yes.

Why did you stop employing her.

It wasn’t my choice. She…disappeared abroad. Without a word of explanation….
She was gone for about a year.

That can’t be right. Bjurman sent in monthly reports on her for all of last year.

Armansky shrugged and smiled. How did Salander manage that?

There are many more questions from Bublanski that elicit positive responses including:

Is she capable of murdering two people in cold blood?

Lisbeth Salander will not do anything unless she has a good reason for it. If she
murdered someone, then she must have felt she had a pretty good reason to do so.
…She is tremendously skilled. And she is unlike anybody I’ve ever met.

And, finally she’s got a champion boxer, “the king of kings” Paolo Roberto in her corner, so to speak. Roberto shows up at Blomkvist’s apartment, who sits him down with coffee but can’t calm him down:

O.K. Here’s the deal. I came home the day before yesterday after a month in New York and found Lisbeth’s face on every fucking newspaper in town. The papers are writing a load of fucking crap about her. And not one of those fuckers seems to have a good word to say about her.

You got three fucks into that outburst.

Paolo Roberto laughed. Sorry. But I’m really pissed off.


…nobody should be condemned without their day in court.

I know Lisbeth. I can’t see her as a deranged killer.

Paolo Roberto laughed again. She’s one fucking freaky chick…but she’s one of the good ones. I like her.

How do you know her?

I’ve boxed with Salander since she was seventeen.

Blomkvist closed his eyes for ten seconds before he opened them and looked at the boxing champ. Salander was, as always, full of surprises.

Of course. Lisbeth Salander boxes with Paolo Roberto. You’re in the same division.

I’m not joking…. Let me tell you how it happened.

And he does. Adding another piece to the Salander puzzle.

If ever a psychological thriller defied summation, it’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. In the end, Lisbeth, who is really quite sane in her own crazy way, does an insane thing to get at the bottom of all the gaps in her life. She wants to make some sense of her origins, uncover “All the Evil” and other dark secrets, and settle some scores. To do so, she puts herself in harm’s way and pays dearly for it. “Salander was the woman who hated men who hate women.”

She is one of the most intriguing, mesmerizing, addictive, original female characters ever created. I love her.

Alas, there is only one more novel featuring Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson died an untimely death, at the age of fifty, after handing in his trilogy. He was a crusading, investigative reporter and it really shows in this novel.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. She reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in December 2008.

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