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Book Review

Larsson’s ‘Girl’ is back but not prominently enough

By Ed Siegel
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2009

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Lisbeth Salander on a good day is madder than hell. Get this social misfit upset and the best you can hope for is she’ll never talk to you again or hack into your computer. More likely, she’ll kick you in the head, shoot you in the foot, or tazer you in the groin.

But we love her.

The eponymous heroine of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ is back and if you’re familiar with that bestseller, you probably know that its author, Stieg Larsson, died before he could taste the fruits of his commercial and critical success. He wrote three crime novels featuring Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Larsson was himself a journalist) and this is the second.

Sequels are rarely as good as the originals and “The Girl Who Played With Fire’’ is no exception. Salander is still in fine form, but the structural strengths of “Tattoo’’ have gotten flabby. It takes the better part of 200 pages for the lengthy story, centering on the Swedish sex trade, to take off.

Until then, Larsson is far too concerned with process, with both how journalists and police do their work. One would think that would be a positive in procedurals, but it’s not. If we can see the first murders coming 100 pages in advance, then Larsson’s inability to get to the point is a liability.

Fortunately, Salander keeps things interesting. Her sleazy guardian who raped her is back and determined to get his revenge; she tattooed “I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RACIST’’ on his body after videotaping his assault, so he couldn’t go to the authorities. Much to her surprise, she had become wildly attracted to Blomkvist, but the first book ends as she sees him with another woman, and now she isn’t speaking to him. In this book she not only switches partners, but switches gender preference.

She also becomes wanted for those murders alluded to, but she disappears from the action for far too long when the press and the constabulary go looking for her. Larsson has his own righteous ax to grind when it comes to the tabloid media circus, but that -- like too much in the book -- is predictable. He’s determined not to be gratuitous about the sex trade he’s exposing and he should probably be commended for that. But he could desperately have used the story of one of the exploited teenagers to put a face on the problems he was trying to expose.

Still, Larsson is too good a writer to make things dull. If it isn’t the page-turner that the original was, it at least has enough elements to keep things inching forward. Who is this mysterious Zala who seems to be the missing link not only to the murders, but to Salander’s back story as well?

And when Salander reenters the story and starts hacking and kicking and shooting and tazing, things get hot again. She makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mrs. Peel from “The Avengers’’ look like Henry James characters. It’s not, though, the violence that makes it interesting, but Salander’s back story; the past is every bit as fascinating as the present, and the violence grows organically out of Salander’s history.

We won’t give any of that story away, other than the part that we know from the beginning: that she was raised in an institution and foster homes, had a huge chip on each shoulder, and had always been prone to violence.

She’s also, though, an incredibly moral person and the way Larsson squares the various parts of her personality is the best part of the book. Let’s hope there’s even more of the “Girl’’ in the third and final book. Whether the world needs more people like Lisbeth Salander, crime writing sure does.

Ed Siegel, a freelance writer, can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE By Stieg Larsson

Knopf, 514 pp., $25.95

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