A Swedish powerhouse

With all the hype surrounding Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime novels published after his sudden death in 2004, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

When I read the first one, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” two years ago, I was dazzled. Not just by the intricate plotting but also by the unlikely pairing of a disgraced journalist with a tattooed computer hacker who team up to solve a murder and, in the process, bring down a corrupt businessman.

I just finished the second one, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” and I have to say it is every bit as good as the first.

girl who played with fire coverThe story picks up where the first one left off, with super sleuth Lisbeth Salander trying to lay low after helping to crack open related cases of family dysfunction and corporate corruption. Meanwhile,investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist, his reputation restored, is striving to build on the national acclaim spurred by his magazine’s exposé of the businessman.

Unlike the first novel, when the two work hand in hand, Salander and Blomqvist don’t even cross paths. In this story, Salander tries to remain anonymous and out of touch — for good reason — while Blomqvist deals with two stunning developments.

One, just as his crusading magazine is about to publish a story exposing an extensive sex trafficking operation, the two reporters responsible for the article are murdered. Two, the fingerprints on the murder weapon are found to belong to none other than Salander.

As police launch a nationwide hunt for the suspect, Salander tries to elude the authorities while Blomqvist scrambles to figure out who killed the reporters and why.

Larsson does a masterful job of laying down multiple story lines that explore Salander’s dark past and test Blomqvist’s investigative skills, not to mention his faith in his brilliant but troubled friend. There are villains a-plenty, more twists and turns than a motocross course, and several episodes of violence.

At 630 pages (slightly longer than the first novel), you might think “The Girl Who Played With Fire” might be a grind. You’d be wrong.

stieg larsson

Journalist and novelist Stieg Larsson in Stockholm in 1998, six years before his death.

It’s an utterly engaging novel that kept my attention from the first page to the last. (That’s in contrast to the beautifully written but at times stilted “Fates and Furies” that I read last month.)

Larsson, an investigative journalist who died of a heart attack at age 50, was a Swedish powerhouse. He has created two vital characters different as night and day, both deeply flawed but each made better by the other. Salander, in particular, is a glorious creation — a petite young woman with genius-level hacker skills and a moral sense of right and wrong that drives her to unforgiving violence against those who abuse women.

I’m giving myself two assignments: 1. Read the third novel, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” 2. See the movies based on these three books, starting with “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”

Photograph: Jan Collsioo, Scanpix/Sipa Press

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