The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

Why are we so intrigued by Lisbeth Salander? I'm not quite sure why some things—books, YouTube videos, tv shows, celebrities—go viral and others, perhaps more deserving, do not, though I understand there are several books on the subject out now. There's no doubt that Larsson's Millennium trilogy has captured the attention of readers and spots on best-seller lists. Certainly these Swedish mysteries featuring crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist are action-packed, with plenty of twists and turns. And my sympathy couldn't be greater for Blomkvist's battles against the forces that degrade women in modern society. There are also plenty of interesting minor characters. In the first book, I was initially most interested in Henrik Vanger with his collection of pressed flowers and the way he was held captive by the past. I was also interested in editor Erika Berger. But once Salander came on the scene, it was all over. Wanting to find out what happens to her is what keeps me reading.

As each book unfolds, we learn a bit more about her background and what effect those early traumas may have had on her. Staying away from any spoilers, I'll just say that she is a damaged young woman, whose determined self-isolation and prodigious intellectual gifts at first made me consider Asperger's Syndrome, but she doesn't quite fit the profile. She possesses the strong moral courage of my favorite heroes, be they in fairy tales, westerns or crime fiction. However, she doesn't have the self-deprecating nonchalance of many of those heroes; her intensity burns too strongly for that. Her moral code is absolute and her courage sometimes verges on recklessness.

She fascinates me because she is such a bundle of contradictions. Tiny, skinny to the point of appearing anorexic, her physical courage is stunning. Her response to any attack on herself or those few people about whom she cares may be immediate or planned out for maximum punishment. Perhaps readers get a vicarious thrill when her violent response seems out of proportion to the crime, at least according to our social rules. It is hard not to cheer when she buries an axe in someone who has been abusing powerless women. She does act out my fantasies of revenge for all the ways that men demean and abuse women.

Mystery writer Kathleen Ernst said characters that are compelling have three characteristics: spunk, vulnerability, and a strong need or desire for something. Salander of course is not spunky or sassy, but when faced with the onslaught of forces attacking her, she surely has the inner strength and fierce survival instinct to validate Ernst's formula. My reaction to Salander is also in line with writer Maureen Stack Sappéy's belief that readers become interested in characters because we envy and admire (or hate) certain traits that they possess. I admire Salander's computer skills and her puzzle-solving brain. I admire her self-reliance, even if it seems too extreme to be considered psychologically healthy. Larssen himself said in an interview that “she is a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people.”

But most of all, what most keeps me reading—and I'm a little embarrassed to say this—is my maternal protectiveness. I feel as though she is my wayward, hard-headed daughter. I worry from one page to the next about what trouble she will next bring down on herself, what past trauma will soak up her resolve, what depths of resourcefulness and courage she will have to find to survive.

I'm not unacquainted with wayward, hard-headed children (not to mention having been one myself, under my demure veneer), though none of us, thankfully, were quite like Lisbeth Salander. Spunky or not, I can't help caring about her and devouring the pages as fast as I can to see what will happen to her.

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