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Detailed thriller draped in clichés

Combine the chilly Swedish backdrop and moody psychodrama of a Bergman movie with the grisly pyrotechnics of a serial-killer thriller, then add an angry punk heroine and a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist, and you have the ingredients of Stieg Larsson's first novel, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," a huge best seller in the author's native Sweden and a sensation in France, Germany and the Netherlands, too.

Larsson's two protagonists -- Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter filling the role of detective, and his sidekick, Lisbeth Salander, aka the girl with the dragon tattoo -- make this novel more than a run-of-the-mill mystery. They are compelling, conflicted, complicated people, extremely idiosyncratic, and interesting enough to compensate for plot mechanics that seize up as the book nears its unsatisfying conclusion.

Larsson -- who died in 2004, shortly after turning in this novel and two companion volumes -- was a journalist and magazine editor, and his knowledge of this world enables him to do a credible job of recounting Blomkvist's efforts to investigate the two biggest stories of his career: corruption, embezzlement and money laundering on the part of a big-shot Swedish industrialist, and the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl named Harriet, who seemingly vanished without a trace during a family reunion.

Meantime, Larsson uses his reportorial eye for detail and an instinctive sense of mood to create a noirish picture of Stockholm and a small island community to the north, showing us both the bright, shiny lives of young careerists and older aristos and a seamy underworld where sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When it comes to explaining the mystery of Harriet's disappearance and the revelation of her family's secret, Larsson stumbles badly, resorting to every bad cliché from every bad serial-killer movie ever shown on late-night TV -- a pity since he's done such a credible job of showing how Blomkvist has been piecing together clues from police files, interviews and old photographs.

Blomkvist, we learn, is a disgraced reporter, who -- for reasons that become clear later -- has just lost a criminal libel case brought by a Swedish tycoon, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Blomkvist's magazine is now teetering on financial ruin, even as Blomkvist is pondering how to pay his legal bills.

In steps prominent industrialist Henrik Vanger, who makes Blomkvist an offer he can't refuse: investigate the decades-old case of Vanger's grandniece Harriet, who disappeared in the 1960s. In return, Vanger will pay Blomkvist handsomely and provide Blomkvist revealing information about Wennerstrom, who got his start with Vanger's company years ago.

Harriet's disappearance is a variation on one of those locked-room puzzles constructed by mystery writers like Dorothy Sayers. The teenager was last seen on the small island that the Vanger clan calls home one September afternoon in 1966; a spectacular accident involving an oil truck had closed the one bridge to the island for 24 hours, and when family members noticed her absence the following morning, search parties looked for her everywhere: going through every building, chimney and well, scouring every field and cliff, dragging all the spots where she might have drowned.

Vanger is convinced that Harriet was murdered and that her murderer has been taunting him. Each year on his birthday, he receives by mail a pressed flower in a picture frame, the same gift Harriet gave him as a child.

After studying the available evidence and meeting many members of the Vanger family (many of whom seem to harbor ancient grievances against one another), Blomkvist manages to turn up three new pieces to the Harriet puzzle. To put them together, he enlists the help of Salander, a freelance investigator for a security firm who once investigated Blomkvist himself. Salander, who has a take-no-prisoners attitude and history of antisocial behavior, seems less like a conventional detective than like a loaded gun, waiting to go off. She and Blomkvist make a very odd pair indeed but their peculiar chemistry is what fuels this novel.

It's clear as the story progresses that Larsson has no idea how to create a credible villain, for the two people most responsible for Harriet's disappearance turn out to be patched-together bad guys who lack malevolent originality.

It's the detectives who are the stars of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and the reader can only hope that Salander and Blomkvist put in return appearances in the two other novels Larsson completed before his death.

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