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Super-Smart Noir With A Feminist Jolt

The hard-boiled mystery is as American as apple pie ... poisoned apple pie, that is, with a steel file baked into the filling. It's a literary genre that was born on the mean streets of early 20th century Los Angeles and San Francisco, sunlit places where, as the sour saying goes, a person could "rot without feeling it."

But one of the most intriguing aspects of hard-boiled history is how the form has been enthusiastically embraced by writers outside of the United States as a literary tool to explore the skeletons buried deep in their own particular patches of the world. In fact, for the past decade or so, Sweden has been a popular pick for crime capital of the literary world, thanks to Henning Mankell and his fellow practitioners of noir on ice.

The newest name in mystery to emerge out of the frozen north is that of the late Stieg Larsson. His debut novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was a blockbuster when it was published in Europe, selling an estimated 2 million copies. Now, an English language version, translated by Reg Keeland, has just been published here.

A veteran mystery reader could spot the clues to this novel's runaway popularity as easily as Poe's detective, Auguste Dupin, spotted that purloined letter. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a super-smart amalgam of the corporate corruption tale, legal thriller and dysfunctional-family psychological suspense story. It's witty, wrenchingly violent in a few isolated passages and unflinching in its commonsense feminist social commentary.

The social vulnerability of women is the underlying Mystery with a capital "M" here; specifically the abuse — psychological and sexual — that's perpetrated against young and dependent women. Very late in the novel, one of our main characters, a reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, asks a serial murderer whose victims are often female emigrants to Sweden the simple question: "Why?" The monster calmly answers, "Because it's so easy."

Clearly, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn't geared toward those readers who favor gentle Agatha Christie cozies, but its plot does consciously bow to Christie and her locked room/isolated island brand of puzzle. Here's the bare-bones summary: Blomkvist is a man down on his luck. He's just been convicted of libeling a corporate mogul and he's been sentenced to a jail term plus hefty fines.

Out of the blue, Blomkvist receives an offer he can't refuse from a rival industrialist. Henrik Vanger is in his 80s and has been tormented for the past 40 years by the mysterious disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet. On the day of Harriet's disappearance, the island where the Vangers lived was blocked off from the mainland by a truck fire on the connecting bridge. How, then, did Harriet, or her corpse, vanish?

What also torments Vanger is the fact that for the next four decades, he's received a disturbing birthday gift in the mail each year — a framed pressed flower — the same gift Harriet would give him when she was young. Vanger tells Blomkvist that if he moves to the island and works for a year re-investigating Harriet's disappearance, he'll receive not only a huge salary, but also inside information that will clear him of the libel charges.

Blomkvist bites. Fortunately, through a turn of events too deliciously complicated to go into here, he's aided in his investigation by a 24-year-old brilliant computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander. Salander is a pierced, tattooed, painfully thin Goth with major attitude problems. She's also the gal pal you want on your side when the creeps slither out from under their rocks.

Larsson's multi-pieced plot snaps together as neatly as an Ikea bookcase, but even more satisfying is the anti-social character of Salander, whose movements are described as "quick and spidery." Certainly the utopian allure of traditional detective fiction had something to do with the omnipotent Sam Spades and Phillip Marlowes who made criminals quake and femme fatales swoon. The liberating fantasy of Salander, at least for this female reader, has something to do with watching a woman operate who doesn't give a darn whether she pleases people or not.

Salander doesn't smile, knock back boilermakers or eat moose burgers. She's not out to win friends or votes. But I'm betting that this offbeat bad girl will win a lot of readers' affections.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.