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Crime fiction with a vengeance

Don't wait for the Hollywood adaptation of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist poses on Feb. 20, 2009, in the Slussen district of Stockholm, where the intrigue of the film based on the book trilogy written by Swede Stieg Larsson takes place. The cult trilogy, with the first part adapted into a film, has become a bookstore phenomenon with 10 million issues sold worldwide. (Anders Wiklund/AFP/Getty Images)

The Swedish title of Part I in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy was “Men Who Hate Women.” Which shows that you can write a huge international bestseller and not know why people would read your book.

Larsson’s U.K. publisher changed the title to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” With his original title, Larsson would’ve been a posthumous hit (he died in 2004 of a heart attack at the age of 50) in Sweden, where he was well-known as a Communist campaigner against racism and the extreme right. But he probably wouldn’t have beaten the rest of the recently popular pack of Nordic crime writers from Henning Mankell to Jo Nesbo.

It’s the title change and its focus on a character who’s both aide to the sleuth and victim of violent crime that made Larsson the second-biggest selling novelist in the world last year, after Khaled “A Thousand Splendid Suns” Hosseini.

All the other Nordic writers focus on the detective, which is after all the traditional route in crime fiction. We’ve bought 40 million Mankell novels to follow Inspector Wallander as he mopes his way to the villain’s doorstep.

You could read Larsson’s book like that, too: Mikael Blomqvist, magazine editor and irresistible ladies man, is commissioned to unravel an old murder mystery on a remote Swedish island. But it’s his assistant, a rape-victim filled with hate for her persecutors (the men who hate women), who’s really the heart of the book.

While Blomqvist is working the island case — a fairly typical “closed room” mystery, similar to the ones in which Agatha Christie’s sleuths used to inform us that “one of the people in this room is the murderer” — Lisbeth Salander is secretly setting up the vigilante vengeance that provides the book’s smooth twist in the tail.

No one reads beyond page 50 for Blomqvist. Just Salander. Which is why the work of a Swedish Communist is now being taken up by Sony Pictures for a Hollywood version probably to be directed by David Fincher (who made “Zodiac”), produced by Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”) and scripted by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for his adaptation of “Schindler’s List”).

So many readers warmed to Salander — the series has sold 27 million copies in 40 countries so far — that all three novels in the series have been made into movies in Sweden already. The first came out in the U.S. this month and the other two will be released in the summer.

USA Today urged viewers not to wait for the Hollywood version, calling the Swedish flick “indelibly great.” (Indelible, like a dragon tattoo, get it?) In an example of praising the atmosphere while half-overlooking a flaw in the central element of the movie, reviewer Claudia Puig wrote: “Though the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael isn't fully developed and a few plot coincidences feel contrived, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo artfully and intelligently fuses a punk sensibility to an epic tale.”

Maybe it’s wise not to wait for Hollywood, if it’s punk sensibility that floats your boat.

Of course, Puig’s quibble is a red alert for likely scriptwriter Zaillian. You have to buy Lisbeth and Mikael, otherwise “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is really a drag.

Let’s go back to the novel.