The Girl Who Played With Fire opens at The Keys Hotel in St. George, on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Lisbeth Salander, it seems, is actually on vacation. But, she knows that all play and no work make Salander a dull girl, and she can't help but get involved in preventing a man from killing his wife for her inheritance. That task accomplished, the novel quickly moves back to Stockholm and its surrounding areas, where Salander tries to get back into the swing of Swedish life, which doesn't work out quite how she planned.
Most of Fire takes place between December 16, 2004 (almost a year after the end of Tattoo) and April 7, 2005.
[…] where else should Kalle Blomkvist, nicknamed for an Astrid Lindgren character, look for [Salander] than at Pippi Longstocking's Villa Villekulla? (30.3)
If you've read Tattoo (and/or Shmoop's guide to it) you know that Mikael Blomkvist is based on Astrid Lindgren's Master Detective Kalle Blomkvist, a boy-detective. Likewise, Salander is based on an even more famous Lindgren character, Pippi Longstocking. In any case, Pippi, as you may know, lives alone with her monkey in Villa Villekulla, a house that could hold a family of twenty and all their cousins.
That Salander has the pseudonym V. Kulla printed on the nameplate outside of her new, enormous apartment (purchased with money she stole from Hans-Erik Wennerström in Tattoo) tells us that she identifies with Pippi way more than her dyed-black hair would suggest. But, Salander's new apartment is important to the story for reasons deeper than that.
On one level, the apartment represents a turning point in Salander's life. Finally, she can afford a really nice place that shelters her from the outside world and the mean people in it. Also, she's moved out of her old apartment, which was the site of some sad memories – including her father beating her mother repeatedly. This seems to indicate that Salander is moving forward with her life, instead of being stuck in the past.
But, while Salander might be more comfortable physically, she's just as lonely as she's always been. This hits us the hardest when we see the apartment through Blomkvist's eyes. He sees that "she only needed the three rooms she had furnished. The other eighteen rooms were empty" (30.81). This, coupled with the lack of personal, sentimental objects in the house makes "Blomkvist [feel] as if someone was squeezing his heart. He [feels] that he [has] to find Salander and hold her close" (30.83). Ouch!
Speaking of ouch, while in the apartment, Blomkvist also watches the DVD Salander made (in the previous book) of Nils Bjurman raping her, and realizes that the rape happened just before Blomkvist and Salander became lovers, and that Salander never let on what she'd been through. This scene in Salander's secret lair is pivotal to the development of our duo's characters. For Blomkvist, Salander's character is suddenly becoming more real, more knowable. Knowing her secrets endears her to him and helps him understand who she is. Seeing Blomkvist react this way to what her apartment reveals endears (perhaps) Blomkvist to the readers. He's showing us that he's even more sensitive and understanding than we might have thought.
The funny part is Salander knows he's in her apartment since he triggers her alarm and she sees him on her surveillance camera. Unless she wants to run back there and kill him, she has to trust him. And she does. Maybe this is a small movement toward the trust that will be necessary for Blomkvist and Salander to have a better relationship.
Like Salander's new apartment, her old apartment helps us see the nuances of her character. When she returns to Sweden and her new apartment, she realizes a fact that stuns her: "I keep squandering my friends" (5.73). One thing she does to rectify this situation is to give Mimmi, her sometimes lover, her old apartment for free. Although Salander does benefit from the situation, she seems truly delighted to give Mimmi this gift.
However, as soon as we see Mimmi moving into Salander's place, we know that there will be trouble on the horizon. At this point, Salander is living in the fantasy that her new found wealth and her tenuous hold over Nils Bjurman will allow her to take control over her own life. Happiness with Mimmi and her new life makes her forget she's a hero of a Stieg Larsson novel, and that people are bound to start trying to kill her at some point. When the Salander-Wu apartment is violated by the police, and then Mimmi is kidnapped on the street outside it, Salander finally gets it:
She cursed herself. She was riddled with guilt. The blame was all hers. Her address was secret; she was safe. And then she had persuaded Mimmi to live in her apartment, at the address anyone could find. (29.36)
For Salander, the Salander-Wu apartment highlights what she definitely sees as a character flaw: self-centeredness. She really did forgot to think about Mimmi's safety, even though she never herself felt safe in the apartment. Not only does it have security issues, but it's the same apartment where her mother was beaten, and where she twice tried to kill Zala as a child. This, of course, doesn't have anything to do with Mimmi, but it should be a sign (in the logic of the book) that the apartment is something of an unsafe place.
Much of the action in Fire takes place in isolated, out of the way places, in similar vein as Tattoo. When we see that Ronald Niedermann has Mimmi in an abandoned warehouse and is about to use a chainsaw on her, we're on high alert. Visions of the warehouse scenes in Reservoir Dogs and From Paris With Love dance through our heads. After Paolo and Mimmi foil Niedermann and escape, when the police start digging up old bodies around it, we learn how truly isolated the warehouse is. Apparently, Niedermann and his associates have been using it (and probably other places like it) as a place to torture and kill people.
Isolated settings often comment on the mentalities of the characters. We can see how the warehouse is a very Niedermann-style place – it's an isolated site of torture, murder, and fear, just like his mind. On the other hand, Paolo and Mimmi are not characterized by isolation. They seem rather carefree types, open, warm, and fairly comfortable with themselves and their current places in the world. Perhaps this is (in the logic of the story) part of why they are able to escape; their non-isolation trumps the isolation of the warehouse, and, in fact, puts an end to the gruesome acts committed there.
The destruction of the cabin, and unearthing of the bodies buried around it, even have a de-isolating effect on Salander, though she doesn't know it. When the police find the bodies, they begin to see that they are up against something much bigger than Salander, and they begin to doubt her guilt just a little bit more.
Fire reaches its climax when Salander comes face to face with Zala, learns that Niedermann is her half-brother, and then is shot by Zala and buried by Niedermann. All this happens at Zala's farm in the country, where he's living under the alias of Karl Axel Bodin. The farm is chosen by Zala, presumably, because of its isolated location; this is a man who doesn't want to be easy to find.
Salander being alone and trapped at Zala's remote, secret farm highlights one of her major flaws: that she is unwilling to turn to her friends for help. Even though she knows that Blomkvist would like nothing better than to help her go after Zala, she insists on her usual Salander-against-the-world mentality. This mentality leads her to the utmost in isolation – being buried alive.
Interestingly, after escaping from the hole (and axing Zala and locking him in the barn) Salander's last act before passing out is to try to call Blomkvist, who doesn't answer because she calls his home number, and Blomkvist is on the road heading to Zala's farm. But, the point is she tries to call him. She actually asks him for help. It's as if after reaching the apex of isolation (being buried alive, in "the fetal position" (31.66) no less) she begins moving in the opposite direction (slowly, mind you) away from an isolated mentality, first by freeing herself from the hole, and then by daring to reach out to Blomkvist for help. We might even look at this as a kind of rebirth. To see how it all plays out, check out The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final installment of the Millennium trilogy.