- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE
By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, $25.95, 512 pages

THE MERRY MISOGYNIST
By Colin Cotteril
Soho Crime, $24, 272 pages

There are few Lisbeth Salanders in crime fiction and more’s the pity because she is the most enthralling character to come along in years.

She burst upon the mystery scene in Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and in The Girl Who Played With Fire (Knopf, $25.95, 512 pages), the sequel, she lives up to the formidable reputation she has already established as a creature of darkness who survived a miserable life at the hands of a brutal father and a sadistic doctor to emerge as a young woman with a brilliant if warped mind, for whom computers are both a refuge and a weapon.

There is a dark and explosive plot through which move characters like Mikael Blomkvist, Salander’s former lover who lost her friendship as well as her affection when she discovered, to her own surprise, that she was capable of jealousy.

There is Bjurman, her guardian, who learned the price of earning her hatred. There is her best friend Mimmi, a happy lesbian bar girl who has earned Salander’s trust. They all fade into the shadow of Salander’s darkly glittering presence. She has overcome a childhood of disadvantage and abuse to carve out a life that only she controls, which is the only way she wants it.

Mr. Larsson’s meticulously detailed descriptions of how Salander lives and how her mind works make this book — like his first — an expertly plotted page turner with a memorable character as its focus. He moves from precise descriptions of Salander’s lifestyle, from the purchase of an apartment to her sophisticated grasp of technology and glimpses of the cold steel of her intelligence. She revels in complicated problems, showing her skill as a computer hacker who can and does find any skeleton in a closet.

Her personal life runs a far second to her intellectual world. She concedes the possibility of friendship, but only on her terms. She indulges in sex with both men and women when it pleases her, and not necessarily when it pleases them.

She is more intrigued by the intricacies of pure mathematics than emotion and she is fanatically driven by an urge for revenge. Not only does she have no hesitation about avenging the wrongs she has suffered, but her retribution demonstrates a capacity for terrifying violence.

Physically fragile, she uses experience gained in boxing lessons from a retired champion to disable two ferocious bikers, restraining herself from killing them. This also is the child who disfigured and crippled her abusive father by trapping him in a burning truck. When she is unjustly accused of three murders, she waits out her enemies and deals cautiously with her friends, communicating only through the computer whose skills she trusts to connect her with the very few she is willing to talk to.

The author has created a unique character with some aspects of a monster who is capable of evoking the compassion that she despises from the handful who have broken past the iron barrier with which she has surrounded herself and found the deeply sad and damaged human within.

Even when Blomkvist becomes her rescuer when she is near death, Salander’s relief and pleasure in his presence are characteristically diluted by her refusal to acknowledge that this is a man who matters to her. She was more comfortable saving his life than accepting his help.

It is tragic that Mr. Larsson died after completing only three Salander mysteries, but at least readers can look forward to the third of his superb thrillers, scheduled to be published in the United States later this year.

With the help of a macabre sense of humor, and a jolly coroner, Colin Cotterill has concocted a wryly entertaining mystery that makes tracking a psychopathic killer more enjoyable than you would expect.

The Merry Misogynist (Soho Crime, $24, 272 pages) is the sixth in the series built around Dr. Siri Paiboun, national coroner of the bureaucratically burdened Laos of the 1970s, and it is a delightful read despite its grisly focus. Dr. Siri is described by the author as one of only two happy men left in a country that has had “all the joy squeezed out of it” by the novice and clumsy socialist administration that has replaced a 600-year-old monarchy.

There is widespread corruption, an economy in collapse, a population fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand and the consequence, according to Mr. Cotterill, is that Laos has become “a dour place to live.”

Yet despite decades of personal and political disappointments, the 73- year-old coroner is content with his life, which has been made joyful by his recent marriage to a 66-year-old freedom fighter who now runs a noodle shop. Not even the discovery that a psychopath is strangling women around the country and tying them to trees can dampen his mood.

The other happy man is the killer, known only as Phan, who has just done away with his fifth wife with nobody the wiser. “How could a man not be overjoyed at such success?” inquires the author.

The ebullient Dr. Siri also has to cope with a charge of absentee landlordism by the Department of Housing Allocation while dealing with appearances by the ghost of his murdered dog and the disappearance of an eccentric but highly literate friend called Rajid who bathes naked in the river and swings from trees.

To punctuate the plot there are excerpts of the killer’s thinking, as he expresses his distaste for the bourgeoisie while he strangles his way through several attractive young women who see him as a potential husband. As he thinks to himself, “All he required was beauty, virginity … and a long, squeezable neck.”

The book reads like a series of sardonic vignettes, stylishly written in a way that indicates the author has a merry take on the vicissitudes of life, and wants the reader to enjoy it with him. Long live Dr. Siri.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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