by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo & r & by Stieg Larsson & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ournalist Mikael Blomkvist is in trouble: He's been convicted of libel following an investigative report on business tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerstr & ouml;m. Dismissed and shamed, Blomkvist receives an intriguing offer from yet another tycoon: Henrik Vanger of the multinational Vanger Corporation wants to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his young niece Harriet some 40 years ago. Harriet's been presumed dead, but no body was ever found.

The story starts slowly, opening with a detailed flashback of the Wennerstr & ouml;m report, followed by a long tour with Henrik Vanger. While Blomkvist plods along, the oddly asocial Lisbeth Salander -- the girl of the title -- is hired by Vanger to check into Blomkvist's background. A brilliant computer hacker and contract investigator, Salander lives a "f---ing rats' nest" of a life, including being subjected to a brutal sexual assault. And yet, when she turns the tables on her assailant in a way that's absolutely breathtaking, we realize this is not a woman to cross.

Blomkvist and Salander eventually team up, although it takes half the book. Once they do, the plot accelerates from a tale of business espionage to a sordid story of rape, torture and serial murder. And Harriet's disappearance is no longer relegated to the past.

The book really contains three mysteries: how Blomkvist's investigation of Wennerstrom went wrong, what happened to Harriet Vanger, and how to track a serial killer in cases going back almost 60 years. Weaving through each of these subplots is the saga of the Vanger family and their integral role in Sweden's industrial and political past and present.

Both Blomkvist and Salander are compelling, fully rounded individuals, each with secrets and motivations. The novel demands effort from American readers -- Sweden is not a setting we know, and the names of people, places and companies can be tongue-twisting -- but the payoff is a satisfying read that pushes us beyond our national myopia.

Pity that we only get two more chances to appreciate Larsson's work: the former journalist and anti-democracy expert died suddenly in 2004 after delivering three manuscripts starring Blomkvist and Salander -- this is the first -- to his publishers.

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