The Girl Who Played With Fire

By Stieg Larsson

Alfred A. Knopf. 512 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Karen Heller


In

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

, published in September and on the best-seller list still, Stieg Larsson showed an enviable gift for writing mysteries, introducing not one but two indelible heroes.

Mikael Blomkvist is the more familiar, a hard-bitten journalist and ladies' man with a run of bad luck and a talent for trouble. His eventual partner in sleuthing, and complicated amorous entanglements, is the remarkable Lisbeth Salander, the Girl of the title, angry, tiny, an idiot savant of sorts - brilliant at hacking, socially a beast - carrying a vast reserve of hurt and anger while proving sexually game with both genders.

And now we have The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in the Swedish writer's trilogy, already huge sellers overseas. Fire is far more Salander's story - Blomkvist seems an afterthought for much of the book - as she becomes the hunted, more than the natural (computer) huntress that she is. An honorable thief, prone to stealing from predators, Lisbeth is eventually suspected of three murders.

"The diagnoses of Salander in the press varied depending on which edition and which newspaper was doing the reporting. Sometimes she was described as psychotic and sometimes as schizophrenic or paranoid. All the papers subscribed to the view that she was mentally handicapped - she had, after all, not been able to finish school and had left without taking her exams. The public should have no doubt that she was unbalanced and inclined to violence."

There is, of course, a bad guy. Superbad. Larsson doesn't do villains in half-measures. "Zala the gangster. The one people seem to be terrified of, and nobody wants to talk about."

Fire's ambitious, though trying, plot construct keeps Blomkvist and Lisbeth, once allies, separated for much of the book; how long would be a spoiler, and reveal a devilishly brisk, even funny, denouement. Eventually, though, I longed to see the journalist and the hacker reunited as an improbable team of sleuths. I would have settled for them congregating in the same room.

What Larsson has done is akin to enlisting two huge, enticing stars, then keeping them separated for much of the action, united only through e-mail. Consequently, Dragon Tattoo proves the more rewarding of the two books, even as its plot snowballs in the final chapters, growing improbably convoluted and more violent than necessary, a failing of many contemporary mysteries.

Larsson, dead from a heart attack in 2004, was a natural crusader. In journalism, he rallied against racism and right-wing extremism. In his novels, the cause is violence against women. In Fire, Blomkvist's Millennium magazine investigates the transport of young Eastern European women forced into prostitution by murderous thugs, "a sex mafia," an inquiry launched by a young couple whose end seems doomed at the moment of introduction.

Victimized by an almost cartoonishly evil guardian, Lisbeth is an avenging demon, meting out punishment by tattooing his body with the confession "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST," while adding another villain to a crowded roster. When the guardian shows up murdered, Lisbeth is the natural suspect since she's gone to ground for most of the action, her character and behavior growing mythic (and homicidal) in her absence.

Fire remains superior to many mysteries, and Larsson's gifts are substantial. The problem is that, except for erotic tussles with her girlfriend, Lisbeth dwells alone with her computers. The book becomes mired in prosaic writing detailing her monk-like life - her meals, her baths - which just goes to show that even angry, tiny, violent, antisocial hackers can lose their fascination weighed down by the minutiae of everyday life.

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.