By Stieg Larsson
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray
Viking Canada, 533 pages, $32
FROM the opening scene of this engrossing European mystery, you know you are in good hands.
An 82-year-old captain of industry phones his friend, a retired police inspector, to say he's received an anonymous birthday present again this year -- a framed flower to go with the previous 43. While the inspector has long given up trying to solve the case, the businessman is haunted by this cryptic reminder.
The novel itself has a tragic history. The author, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, had previously made headlines for his struggles against racism and right-wing extremism and for his work as editor of Expo magazine.
While working days at Expo, he spent his nights writing three mysteries in his Millennium series, of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first.
He didn't contact a publisher until he had two novels done and third in the works. They were accepted and published. But Larsson's death in 2004 prevented him from seeing their huge popularity in Sweden, and the awards the books won.
The mystery in Dragon shows that was no accident. Larsson casts a set-upon financial reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, as his reluctant sleuth. Still smarting from a disastrous lawsuit launched by a financier he attempted to expose, Blomkvist accepts a fool's errand from the elderly industrialist Henrik Vanger.
Vanger wants Blomkvist to solve the murder of his niece Harriet, who disappeared during a huge family gathering decades ago. Vanger dangles a huge fee in front of Blomkvist, as well as the promise of information that could sink the financier who caused him so much grief.
The idiosyncractic Vanger family serves as a list of suspects, all of whom were trapped on the Vanger family's island following a terrible traffic accident the day Harriet disappeared. A locked-room mystery, Blomkvist comments drily.
The mystery deepens when Blomkvist turns up evidence of a series of grisly murders before Harriet's disappearance. While he evades the malice of some of the Vangers -- who think he is encouraging Henrik's unhealthy obsession with Harriet -- he begins to find the story is much larger than a locked room.
Blomkvist begins to doubt he will unravel what happened without help, which he gets in the form of Lisbeth Salander, a recalcitrant hacker who knows how to dig up the dirt on anyone -- even Blomkvist himself.
Along the way, there are many loose ends and red herrings -- though, to Larsson's great credit, many red herrings lead somewhere eventually.
And the strong supporting cast, from the fixated, intelligent Henrik Vanger, to Blomkvist's on-again off-again lover Erika Berger, whom he also works with, to the exasperated and ethical security expert Dragan Armansky, is reminiscent of the well-drawn characters in Danish writer Peter HÃ¸eg's 1992 bestseller, Smilla's Sense of Snow.
The novel is long, but never drags. Larsson's pacing keeps multiple narrative balls in the air, developing quickly. He trusts the reader to keep track of them -- and there are some great twists even when you think you've solved the mystery.
It's easy to see why Larsson's writing became so popular: it's superb. And it's a real shame there are only two more books left to look forward to.
David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor.