The Girl Who Played With Fire opens like an explosion. We meet a young girl (who we later learn is Lisbeth Salander) strapped to a bed in a dark empty room. She has been trapped in the room for about a month and a half. To calm her extreme anger, she focuses on her favorite fantasy (which we later learn is a memory) of pouring gasoline on a man in a car and then lighting him on fire. Yikes! Soon, a mysterious man enters the dark room. When she lashes out at him, he tightens her restraints. When he leaves, she fantasizes about lighting him on fire, too. This is how she celebrates the night of her thirteenth birthday.
It's December of 2004, and Lisbeth Salander is vacationing in the city of St. George, on the island of Grenada. She's a bit troubled because the man in the hotel room next to her, Richard Forbes, seems to spend his evenings beating his wife, Geraldine. Meanwhile, back in Salander's hometown, Stockholm, Sweden, Mikael Blomkvist has been trying to reach her. He hasn't heard from her in over a year; for some reason, she abruptly stopped all contact with him.
Back in St. George, Salander examines her brand new breast implants in the mirror and thinks she likes what she sees. After hearing news that a hurricane is set to hit the island, 26-year-old Salander visits 16-year-old George Bland, her new lover. She also arranges a background check on Richard Forbes.
In Stockholm, Salander's guardian (she's one of a minority of Swedish adults under guardianship), Nils Bjurman, is making some plans for Salander. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first novel in Larsson's trilogy, Bjurman brutally raped Salander. She happens to have recorded the event, and is using the DVD to blackmail him. She tattooed the words "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST" (2.4) on his torso, and has basically ruined his life. Since then, he's tracked down a police report from 1991 which has some important information about her. In the report, he finds the name of a man who must despise Salander just as much as he does.
Back in St. George, Salander discovers that Richard Forbes stands to inherit 40 million dollars if his wife Geraldine should happen to die. When the hurricane hits St. George, Salander finds him on the beach, trying to make that very thing happen. In the midst of a raging storm, she stops him, and brings his wife to safety. The next day, Geraldine seems very upset to learn that her husband has been found dead.
It's January now, and Salander is back in Stockholm. Using the billions of kroner she stole (using her hacking skills) from corrupt financier Hans-Erik Wennerström (in Tattoo), she has bought herself an ultra-fabulous apartment. She definitely doesn't want to see Blomkvist. She fell in love with him, but knows he'll never reciprocate in the way she wants him to. Now she wants to ignore him and get over him.
At the offices of Millennium magazine where Blomkvist works, Blomkvist meets Dag Svensson. Millennium has agreed to publish a book and an article by Dag, which will expose people involved in the sex trade, smuggling women and girls into Sweden from Eastern Europe and forcing them into prostitution. Some of these people are lawyers, judges, policeman, journalists, and other would-be guardians of the public trust.
After a huge shopping spree to furnish her apartment, Salander goes to Äpelviken nursing home to pick up a box of her late mother's belongings. Her mother, Agneta Sofia Salander, died at the age of 46 from a massive brain hemorrhage. She'd been suffering from these strokes for the past twenty years. Back at her new apartment, Salander realizes that she's been taking her friends for granted. She didn't say goodbye to her friend Miriam Wu (Mimmi), her boss Dragan Armansky, or Mikael Blomkvist, for that matter, before she left on her year-long trip around the world. Nor did she bid adieu to her young lover George Bland in Grenada. Maybe, just maybe, Salander can start to turn her life around.
In late January, a mysterious blond giant gives a man named Carl-Magnus Lundin Salander's name and address. He also gives Lundin the order to kidnap her. Around this same time, Salander decides to let Mimmi, her friend and sometimes lover, live in her old apartment. This way, Mimmi can have a nice place to live, and Salander can continue getting mail at her old apartment, keeping her new address nice and secret.
In February, Salander visits her former boss at Milton Security, Dragan Armansky. Armansky is upset with her for leaving without word, and tells her she's a selfish brat. He also gives her some stunning information. Holger Palmgren, her guardian before Nils Bjurman and the one person she trusts in the world, is alive! She thought he'd died of a stroke. She feels hideously guilty for neglecting this man she cares for deeply. She drives out to the rehabilitation center where Palmgren now lives. They reunite happily and Salander arranges for him to get a personal physical therapist to help speed his recovery.
Dag Svensson meets up with his girlfriend Mia Johansson. Mia is excited because her doctoral dissertation, which she will defend in a few months, has been printed and bound. Her research also concerns the sex trade. They discuss a mysterious gangster known as "Zala" who might be heavily involved in the sex trade. Everyone they interview seems terrified of Zala.
In March, while grabbing a beer with Mimmi in a bar, Salander spots Blomkvist. Seeing him prompts her to have a look inside his computer (which he knows full well she hacks into whenever she wants) to see what he's working on. She learns about Dag and Mia's research into the sex trade. She encounters a name that chills her to the bone: Zala.
Still in March, Salander happens to see Nils Bjurman meet with the blond giant, and then she follows the blond giant around for a while. Deeply concerned that Bjurman is up to no good, Salander visits his apartment while he's sleeping. She finds nothing that gives away his plans, but she does find a gun she hasn't seen before, locked in his drawer. This makes her uneasy.
Later in March, Blomkvist is walking near Salander's old apartment when he sees her! Before he can talk to her, a man tries to snatch her off the street. She defends herself, evading the man. Blomkvist tries to keep the man from following her and gets punched. Salander gets away, but she drops her keys and purse. Blomkvist picks them up. While Salander hides, Blomkvist tries to use her keys to get into her apartment. To his shock, none of the keys fit. Meanwhile, Salander realizes that Bjurman has hired people to try to kill her. She can't let him get away with that.
Near the end of March, Blomkvist still hasn't been able to reach Salander. He doesn't understand why the nameplate on her door reads Salander-Wu. While having dinner at his sister's house, Blomkvist gets a call from Dag. Dag and Mia are going out of town, and Dag wants to give Blomkvist some material for the article. Blomkvist offers to come and pick it up. Shortly thereafter, Salander pays Dag and Mia a visit. She asks them what they know about Alexander Zalachenko .
They are stunned; they'd never even heard Zala's full name before. When Blomkvist gets to Dag and Mia's a little later, he finds Dag and Mia's corpses. Someone shot them just moments before his arrival. He calls the police and the investigation into Dag and Mia's murders begins. Early the next morning Blomkvist breaks the bad news to his long-time lover and friend Erika Berger, editor in chief of Millennium. They decide to investigate Dag and Mia's murder themselves, and to publish Dag's work posthumously once they learn the identity of his killer.
That same day, the police find the gun used to kill Dag and Mia. It's registered to one Nils Erik Bjurman, and – get this – it has Salander's fingerprints all over it. The police try getting in touch with Bjurman, but haven't yet been able to reach him. Soon, they find him shot dead in his apartment, apparently with the same gun used to kill Dag and Mia. Now Salander is the prime suspect in three murders. The cops raid Salander's old apartment, but soon learn that she probably doesn't live here anymore. Everything seems to belong to Miriam Wu, who is also absent from the apartment.
Meanwhile both Blomkvist and Armansky wrestle with questions of Salander's guilt or innocence. Blomkvist decides that Salander can't possibly be the killer. Armansky tends to think she might be the killer, but that she must have had a good reason for her actions. Like Blomkvist, Armansky opens an investigation into the murders, assigning his men as consultants to the police investigation.
Soon, the police investigation meets with Dr. Peter Teleborian. We learn that in 1991 (when Salander was twelve) Salander was committed to St. Stefan's Psychiatric Clinic, under the care of Teleborian. Teleborian considers Salander a very dangerous person who should never have been let out onto the streets. We learn that Salander refused to submit to psychiatric testing; her diagnoses (that she's psychotic) are all based on her refusal to cooperate. In short, there's no valid psychiatric assessment of her in existence.
Blomkvist suspects Salander might be looking around in his computer from time to time, so he leaves her a message offering her his help. She replies briefly, suggesting he look into Zala. On April Fool's Day, Mimmi gets back into town after visiting her parents in Paris. She hasn't seen the headlines branding Salander a killer and is shocked to find her apartment violated. The police promptly pick her up for questioning.
In April, famous boxer Paolo Roberto comes to Sweden and sees the headlines. He happens to be friends with Salander, and once taught her how to box.
Paolo Roberto volunteers to help Blomkvist and Millennium with the investigation into the murders. Blomkvist gives him the task of trying to talk to Mimmi. While waiting outside Mimmi's apartment, Paolo witnesses Mimmi getting kidnapped and follows the kidnapper's van to a remote warehouse. Inside the warehouse, the blond giant threatens Mimmi with dismemberment by chainsaw if she doesn't reveal Salander's hiding place (which she doesn't know anyway).
Paolo Roberto breaks in. Together, Paolo and Mimmi manage to escape the blond giant's clutches and make it back to Stockholm. When Paolo and Mimmi report these events, the police decide Salander might not be the killer after all. But, she is still their prime suspect, and the media circus surrounding Salander continues.
Meanwhile, we learn that the blond giant killed Dag, Mia, and Bjurman. He is Zala's right-hand man. Here's what happened on the night of the murders: Dag calls Bjurman asking questions about Zala, and the blond giant happens to be at Bjurman's place, talking to him about Salander. He decides Bjurman has too much information, and he kills Bjurman, then goes to Dag and Mia's place and kills them for looking into Zala. While at Dag and Mia's the blond giant drops his gun, but it turns out to be for the best since Salander's fingerprints are found on it, and she's accused of the murders.
Back in the present, Blomkvist learns about Zala. Zala was orphaned in Russia when he was a baby and was raised in the Russian military. He defected to Sweden in the 1970s and acted as a source for Sweden's Secret Police. He is now in his 60s and has an amputated leg, which means he probably isn't running around shooting people.
Meanwhile, Salander locates the police report from 1991. While Salander reads the police report, she remembers the events of 1991. It turns out, Salander is Zala's daughter (!). Here a flashback to 1991: Salander is twelve and she stabs Zala five times to stop him from beating her mother. Not long after, Salander comes home from school to find that Zala has beat her mother unconscious. So, Salander throws a gasoline-filled milk carton into Zala's car (which he's inside). Then she lights the gas on fire. Zala has horrible burns, gets his leg amputated, and barely survives. Although she tries to explain to the authorities (including Dr. Teleborian) that she was defending her mother, Salander is branded psychotic and committed to St. Stefan's.
Back in the present, looking at the police documentation for the first time, Salander realizes that none of this was accidental. Zala is under the protection of the Secret Police. The events surrounding Salander and her mother had to be covered up to keep Zala from becoming known to the public, which meant unfairly tossing Salander into a mental institution.
While Salander is reliving her past, Blomkvist is hearing about it from Salander's former guardian, Holger Palmgren. Not surprisingly, Blomkvist is outraged. Separately, Salander and Blomkvist both decide to hunt down Zala. Soon, Salander discovers the identity of the blond giant. His name is Ronald Niedermann, and his address is a post office box outside of Stockholm. She drives out to the post office box.
Soon, Blomkvist does some fancy detective work, finds the location of Salander's fancy new apartment, bypasses her security, and uses her key to let himself in. He finds the DVD of Salander being raped by Nils Bjurman and realizes that his affair with Salander began very shortly after the rape. He had no idea. He feels very tender toward Salander.
Salander waits until someone checks the mail at the post office box, and then follows this person out to a remote farm. Blomkvist has also learns the location of Zala's farm and is trying to get out there, but the going is slow. Salander scopes out the farmhouse and determines that Zala and Niedermann are inside. When darkness falls, she enters the farmhouse and is immediately grabbed by Niedermann. Zala is here, and he laughs at her. Zala and Niedermann have been watching her all day with their infrared cameras. Salander learns that Niedermann is her half-brother, and that Zala also has a bunch of other kids out in the world as well. Zala and Niedermann walk Salander away from the farmhouse. Out in the woods, Zala manages to shoot Salander in the head. Niedermann buries.
But wait! Salander isn't actually dead, though Zala and Niedermann sure think she is. She digs her way out of the grave, finds Zala, axes him in the head, and locks him in the barn. Niedermann (who is afraid of the dark) gets frightened by Salander's appearance (she's covered in blood and dirt and looks undead), and he decides to leave the farm on foot.
Blomkvist, who is finally arriving, sees Niedermann on the road. Using a gun he borrowed from Salander's apartment, he forces Niedermann to his knees, ties him up, and leaves him by the side of the road. Blomkvist makes it to the farmhouse just as Salander is passing out from the bullet to the head she received. She says his name, and he calls the ambulance. Rest assured, this is not the end of the story. To learn what happens next, check out The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, the final book in the Millennium trilogy.