Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

This will go down in my reading history as the Year of the Nordic Thriller.  Never mind that I'm a year or two behind the craze for Larsson's trilogy.

It was uncanny. When I finish one book, I usually reach for something very different for the next one.  While still glowing from the subtle elegance of The Housekeeper and the Professor, I ambled off for some depraved Swedish crime. It seemed unlikely, to put it mildly, that one of the characters from the former book would show up in the latter one. Fermat! Yes, the amateur French mathematician whose last theorem (1637) drove subsequent mathematicians bats until a British scholar, Wiles, published his proof in 1995. The Japanese professor in Ogawa's novel rhapsodized about Fermat, and as The Girl Who Played with Fire opens, the title character is on a Caribbean beach reading Dimensions in Mathematics. She, too, is taken with the wily Frenchman and his theorem.

A young woman dabbling with mathematical formulas for entertainment whilst on holiday in Guadaloupe?  But that's absurd. No, it's Lisbeth Salander.  The men who spend the rest of the novel in a fruitless search for her either know or come to realise that there's very little about her that is congruous or predictable.  They can at least agree that she is highly anti-social and can be violent when provoked.

In the trilogy's first volume, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Salander helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve murders connected to corporate corruption.  This time, the corpses all appear connected in some way to the sex trade.  Here in southeast Asia, trafficking is ubiquitous and well-documented.  Western Europe, however, is not free from it, and the police there are inclined to ignore it.  One of Blomkvist's fellow journalists remarks upon the apathy:
The criminal justice system simply does not want to deal with it. Attacks on teenage girls from Tallinn and Riga are not a priority. A whore is a whore. It's part of the system.  
Larsson gives us another tour of Sweden's seamy side, far from the trademark images of Saabs and smoked herring.  When Lisbeth Salander is named as the prime suspect in three murders, the police are only one of the parties searching for her.  Blomkvist and the staff at his magazine are also looking, as are her former employer, and the actual killers.  The chase ends only on the last page of the book.

Lisbeth Salander has become one of my favorite literary companions. She is a mistrustful loner, a hacker, a woman with a fierce sense of justice.  Highly elusive, intellectually curious, and secretive.  And all that verbiage notwithstanding, Lisbeth Salander defies classification.  I feel for her great affection (which she would disdain) and empathy (which she doesn't need).

And with whom does Salander empathise?  As she is stalking a vicious killer, moving toward his house through a field at night, she stops dead in her tracks, immobilised by a flash of insight, linked as if by broadband to the mind and spirit of Pierre Fermat:
And all of a sudden she understood. The answer was so disarmingly simple. A game with numbers that lined up and then fell into place in a simple formula that was most similar to a rebus. Fermat had no computer, of course, and Wiles' solution was based on mathematics that had not been invented when Fermat formulated his theorem. Fermat would never have been able to produce the proof that Wiles had presented. Fermat's solution was quite different.
She was so stunned that she had to sit down on a tree stump. She gazed straight ahead as she checked the equation.
So that's what he meant. No wonder mathematicians were tearing out their hair. Then she giggled. A philosopher would have had a better chance of solving this riddle. She wished she could have known Fermat.  He was a cocky devil.  

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.