In the first instlament of the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, Lisbeth Salander is almost a spectral presence. She is flesh and blood. She breathes, she kills, she has sex with Mikael Blomqvist and yet she never quite seemed to be real, but instead was an elusive, unknowable presence.
Those who were haunted by her in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, will be delighted by the follow-up, The Girl Who Played With Fire which susbtantiates Lisbeth Salander, revealing the history and at least some of the psychology of one of the most idiosyncratic and original heroines of the genre.
Salander, the computer genius and sometime investigator, and Blomqvist, the celebrated reporter with the fallen star, were the twin pillars on which the brilliant Dragon Tattoo was built. But, despite the name and Salander's possession of the reptilian tattoo, it was very much Blomqvist's story.
Fire is Salander's story. It is brutal, bleak and emotionally bruising, but it is quite brilliantly told and never less than gripping - even when off on one of its many diversions. It emphatically confirms that the Stieg Larsson phenomenon sweeping out Sweden and conquering Europe was no one-off as well as the great sense of loss that the next Larsson book we read will be the last.
The fact that Larsson died before the publication of his novels has prompted considerable debate over whether the somewhat meandering and meticulously detailed nature of the narrative can be attributed to the fact that he was denied the opportunity to edit his manuscripts as fully as he might have.
It is a fascinating debate, even if it has no obvious means of resolution, and there is an element of first draft about both these books. But Larsson's tendency to stray from the conventions of narrative into historical cul-de-sac, mundane detail or even vignettes that seem to belong in an another story altogether - such as the somewhat bizarre 100-page Caribbean holiday Salander takes before Fire starts "properly" - is part of the charm of his writing. It is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. But almost always enjoyable. Salander's Grenadian excursion would have made a perfectly entertaining short story of its own.
Where there is a weakness in the stories is in Larsson's propensity to contrive improbable solutions to Salander's problems, creating situations that lack credibility. One of the worst examples of this is the moment at which Salander needs access to the police intranet so she can keep track of an investigation and we are promptly treated to a description of how she and an associate some time previously had organised just that. And as luck would have it, the exact combination of circumstances she needs for this still to work fall fortuitously into place. It's pretty lazy stuff for a writer who brings so much energy to his craft.
And it's a small gripe. Otherwise this is a quite outstanding novel - part police procedural, part psycholigical thriller, part journalistic crusade. There's just so much going on, it is utterly addictive.
Fire revolves around the investigation of three murders that take place on the same night: a husband and wife pair who have a book and an academic treatise respectively focused on the hypocrisy of Sweden's legal and political establishment in its treatment of the sex industry - the former is to have his book published by Blomqvist's Millennium imprint; and across Stockholm a lawyer who just happens to be Lisbeth Salander's legal guardian.
Salander, fresh back from the West Indies, quickly finds herself at the centre of both a police investigation and a manhunt led by criminals apparently intent on concealing their part in these and earlier crimes. As Salander, in hiding, becomes Sweden's public enemey number one, Blomqvist begins his own investigation into the deaths of his colleagues just as she, independently, looks to clear her name. Following their own separate paths, both quickly find themselves following a route that leads inexorably into Salander's past.
The accompanying cast is extraordinary by any standard, ranging as it does from the classic unreconstructed copper, through a giant who doesn't feel pain as well as bent spies, rock producers stars with attitude and journalists covering the entire ethical range from red top hack to moral crusader. And Larsson takes care over all of them
Along the way, Larsson examines the irresponsibility of the press, the corruption and greed of elements of the establishment and the indefatigability of the human spirit. He does so with a canvas rich in ideas, in deep and credible characters, and in compelling, detailed story-telling.
Fire is nothing less than a triumph and the wait for the third instalment of Millennium will be a long one.