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Review: Stieg Larsson's 'Girl Who Played With Fire' starts with a bang, never slows down

Stieg Larsson, editor of a Swedish magazine called Expo, wrote three thrillers before his death at 50. His unlikely detectives were a beleaguered magazine editor in his 40s and a taciturn girl hacker with a mysterious past. Published after his death in 2004, the novels have become bestsellers.

Larsson's background in journalism explains what was so wrong with the first in his Millennium trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and what's so right about this one. In the first novel, magazine intrigue put a damper on the excitement. In this one, it drives the story along at breakneck speed.

The girl with the dragon tattoo, of course, is the most interesting character. Grim, driven little Lisbeth Salander is a hero for the Age of the Internet, and she comes equipped with a mysterious, thorny past. A school dropout, she is a brilliant young woman who reads higher mathematics for fun and solves Fermat's last theorem in her spare time.

With Salander around, no computer system is safe. She can slip through any firewall and tease sensitive information out of even the most thoroughly secured machines. Hired by a detective agency to hunt down details for clients, she takes a freelance job with disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist of Millennium magazine. In Dragon Tattoo they solved a locked-room murder in an isolated island retreat. She risked death to save Blomkvist's life, dropping her guard just long enough to fall in love with him.

The villain was a wonderfully sadistic predator with a secret. Unfortunately, the smash-bang story of Dragon Tattoo is bracketed by a tediously detailed account of Blomkvist's problems at Millennium — 200 boring pages at either end, perhaps Larsson's attempt to settle some old journalistic score.

Whether shaped by a canny editor before his death or when he was no longer around to squawk, The Girl Who Played With Fire starts with a bang and never slows down. Millennium figures in the story, but it moves things along instead of getting in the way. The magazine is sponsoring a couple writing about sex trade with Russia. Inevitably, they will end up dead. Prime suspect? The girl with the dragon tattoo.

Lisbeth's year off ends with a tropical hurricane. She's rich now, thanks to some digital sleight of hand, and no longer an A-minus cup, thanks to her plastic surgeon. She has developed some wardrobe sense. She can't forgive Blomkvist for treating her like just another fling; she has cut off communication with everybody from her old life.

Odd, because someone tries to kill her almost as soon as she steps off the plane in Sweden. Unfortunately for her enemies, she has moved into an extravagant apartment under an assumed name. She drops in at her old place only to collect snail mail and have sex with a lesbian friend. Blomkvist sees her escape the killer but can't catch up. Then he finds her tracks in his computer — her way of getting in touch.

This becomes a life-and-death matter. A state-certified psychotic because something she calls All the Evil came down when Lisbeth was 12, she ended up the ward of a sadistic predator. Although she got even with him in Dragon Tattoo, this time she's accused of murdering him. The police want her because the investigative journalists were murdered with the same gun.

In Fire, the timing is so swift that the reader races along, eager to find out what happens next. Larsson's intricate story unfolds neatly. Although he leaves some story threads dangling as Salander leaves the Caribbean island where she went to get over losing Blomkvist, all the elements of the murder mystery in Sweden fall neatly into place: mysterious Russian villains, a bike gang, her troubled past.

The prose works well enough, although it's hard to know whether it's the late author or his translator who has a penchant for clunky simile (e.g. "nutty as a fruitcake," "His eyes burned like fire.").

But, hey. With a top-notch story laced with bizarre secrets and unspeakable acts of violence, who cares?

Kit Reed's new novel is "Enclave" (Tor Books).

The Girl Who Played With Fire

By Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

Knopf, 528 pages, $25.95

Review: Stieg Larsson's 'Girl Who Played With Fire' starts with a bang, never slows down 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 2:28pm]
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