THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, by Stieg Larsson. Alfred A. Knopf, 503 pp., 25.95.
If you haven't already read Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," put down this review, go out and buy a copy right now. Last year's unputdownable Swedish thriller was an international bestseller and critical triumph and is available in paperback.
Welcome back. If you've finished "Tattoo," then nothing is going to dissuade you from picking up Volume 2 of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. (The author was reportedly planning a 10-book series but died from a heart attack in 2004.) You must find out what happens next to Lisbeth Salander, the hacker-punk-vigilante who played second fiddle to investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist in "Tattoo" but now takes center stage.
As the book opens, Salander is making the most of the fortune she, well, stole, at the end of "Tattoo." She is estranged from Blomkvist but has taken up mathematics as a hobby and is working on solving Fermat's Last Theorem. She has also acquired a new set of breasts. Blomkvist's magazine, Millennium, is getting ready to expose a sex-trafficking ring with ties to the highest reaches of the Swedish government. Then the journalists working on the exposé are found murdered, and Salander's fingerprints are found at the scene.
Everyone starts investigating: Blomkvist to find out if his colleagues' research was accurate, Salander to clear her name. Meanwhile, the police find that the government is a little too interested in their investigation. And, to complicate matters further, Salander's evil guardian, whom she ritually humiliated in "Tattoo," is looking into her past as a way to exact revenge.
Bit by bit, the story of Salander's unspeakably abusive childhood is unearthed, and everyone - Blomkvist, the police, the readers, even Salander - comes to understand how her character - fearless, wild, withdrawn, crude, moral - was forged.
As absorbing as it is, yet "Fire" falls short of "Tattoo." For one, the novelty of a thriller set in modern-day Sweden has worn off. For Americans who think of Sweden as a country of Volvo-driving, sexually liberal communitarians, the very existence of greed, deviance and social injustice in their midst comes as a shock . . . at first.
Then too, the villains are more familiar. Whereas the baddies in "Tattoo" were crooked, perverted industrialists, these are violent criminal lowlifes, all too common on American TV and in movies.
There is more than a little authorial laziness. The connections between Salander's past and the crimes that Blomkvist's magazine is exposing strain credulity. And too much of the plot relies on Salander's ability to hack into anyone's computer at any time - it's just too darn convenient.
And yet, I couldn't put down "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and eagerly await book three, due to be published in the U.S. in 2010. As long as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are out there exposing (his specialty) and punishing (hers) the wicked, I want to be along for the ride.