After balky start, crime tale engages


By Stieg Larsson. Knopf. 466 pages. $24.95.

Stieg Larsson's debut crime novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” leaves you wanting more from an odd investigative duo. The good news is that this is the first of his “Millennium” trilogy – there are two more completed books to come – but there's also bad news: Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 at 50 before the mysteries were published, a premature end to a budding talent in Sweden.

There is a lot of buzz in Europe about these books, and Larsson's rising reputation has preceded this month's U.S. publication. So I was surprised and disappointed by the first few chapters – dense with character and plot development, financial reporting and umlaut-heavy names of people and places I didn't know.

But the mystery unfolds, and the book takes off, in the fourth chapter. From there, it becomes classic parlor crime fiction with many modern twists.

Mikael Blomkvist is a financial reporter and part-owner of Millennium magazine, which has just lost a libel case to a powerful business tycoon, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. The journalist's reputation is damaged, along with the magazine's, and he is facing several months in prison when he gets a call from a lawyer representing another industrialist, Henrik Vanger.

Vanger, who lives on a northern island, wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet, which happened 40 years before. Vanger and a police detective have spent decades trying to solve the mystery. In his 80s now, Vanger is determined to try one last time.

Blomkvist is reluctant to take on the job, but besides generous financial rewards that could save the magazine, Vanger also offers him a chance at redemption – evidence to take down Wennerstrom. Blomkvist takes leave from the magazine, postpones his jail time and moves to the island to investigate.

Before hiring Blomkvist, Vanger's lawyer has had him checked out by a young woman named Lisbeth Salander, an anorexic-looking, mildly autistic ward of the court who works freelance for an investigation agency and who is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo. The 24-year-old also turns out to have a photographic memory and top-notch computer hacking skills. After seeing the thorough report she did on him, Blomkvist hires her to help him on the Harriet Vanger case.

The writing is not beautiful, clipped at times (although that could be the translation by Reg Keeland), with a few too many falsely dramatic endings to sections or chapters. But it is a compelling, well-woven tale that transports the reader to rural Sweden for a good crime story.