By Rob Brunner
Updated July 22, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

This might not sound like the stuff of book-jacket blurbs, but I mean it as high praise: Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s previous novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was better than a ruptured appendix. Mine burst when I was a third of the way through that riveting mystery, and as I waited in the emergency room for surgery, feverish and in pain, I simply could not tear myself away from its twisty plot and twisted characters. It was, as they say, a page-turner.

It was also a massive hit, and Tattoo‘s many fans will be thrilled to reconnect with its two central figures in the sequel: nice-guy investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and enigmatic computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, who teamed up in the first book to solve a decades-old crime. Originally published in Swedish in 2006 — two years after Larsson died at age 50 from a heart attack — The Girl Who Played With Fire focuses mostly on Salander, a pathologically introverted cipher who cracks hard drives with ease, solves impossible math puzzles for fun, and lashes out with astonishing violence when provoked. But is she capable of murder? When a creepy subplot from Tattoo eventually embroils her in a triple homicide, Blomkvist tries to untangle her murky history to find an answer.

Fire soon proves to be another gripping, stay-up-all-night read, but it’s also a bit sloppy, too often falling back on annoying devices. Characters repeatedly turn up at key events through sheer coincidence, and Larsson clumsily foreshadows big events with ”a vague sense of unease” or ”a sinking feeling in his stomach.” The central mystery is also a bit less mysterious, and the climactic buildup, with its ludicrous B-movie last act, can’t match Tattoo‘s more satisfying big-reveal ending.

But the real mystery here is still Salander. Fire is at its best when exploring her dark secrets, and those who found themselves mystified and intrigued by her in the first book will tear through this exploration of her long-shrouded past — whether they’re on the couch or a hospital gurney. B+

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