Monday, June 07, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Girl Who Kicked the
Hornet’s Nest
by Stieg Larsson

And so we come to the end, the third book in Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. First came The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then The Girl Who Played with Fire and now The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Larsson, who died after submitting Nest, did not see his books take the world publishing stage by storm, and what a shame. In a way, these novels -- with their tight, outrageous plots and bombastic (and equally outrageous) characters -- have become a sort of Harry Potter series for grown-ups. Knowing that Larsson had ideas for as many as 10 books, and that there is a large portion of a fourth in existence, only makes the story more disappointing. Unless another author takes up the task, as other writers have taken up the James Bond franchise in the years since Ian Fleming's too-soon death in 1964, this is the last we’ll see of magazine editor Mikael Blomqvist and hacker/ingénue/enigma Lisbeth Salander. (Sigh)

Hornet’s Nest has all the signature elements that have made this series so magnetic and unforgettable. The dark government plot. The twisty action sequences. The crisp, abrupt dialogue. The technology. But most of all, this book is all revenge, all the time. During most of the story, Salander lies in a hospital bed, recovering from the nasty, nearly fatal injuries she sustained at the end of Fire. In fact, this book picks up at the moment that other one ends; they could, quite convincingly, have been published as a single volume called The Girl Who Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Here, Blomqvist is working feverishly to gather evidence that will clear Salander’s name, now that she’s been accused of attempted murder. The tar-black political environment and the painfully detailed tiptoeing Blomqvist must do to uncover a decades-old government plot are great fun. (OK, maybe “tiptoeing” is too soft a term for what he does.) Although Salander can’t participate very much at the beginning, she does get involved -- along with her mysterious hacker posse -- and amazingly, makes things happen using just a smartphone.

The action moves swiftly, crosscutting among several strands of plot, though perhaps not at the breakneck pace of the previous books. The inevitable trial, when all hell breaks loose, is fantastic. For me, this is the highlight of the novel, and watching the bad guys face the music is about as much fun as I’ve had reading a book in a long, long time. But you won’t see any spoilers about that here.

I do think Larsson stood one step too high on his soapbox this time around, venturing into areas that would have been fine if left out. There’s also a lengthy subplot about Blomqvist’s partner, Erika Berger, involving office-based sexual harassment and threatened violence. This happens once she’s left Millennium magazine to take over Sweden’s large daily paper -- but the emotional toll it takes on her is somewhat of a distraction, and on the whole this subplot is a digression that adds little to the marquee story. She (and we) could have learned those lessons in a way that kept the action at Millennium and our focus on learning the fate of Lisbeth Salander.

Despite this, there should be no doubt that the book is an amazing read. But having said that, and even though Salander’s story is interesting, I was far more taken when Blomqvist and Salander weren’t the center of the mystery. I was perfectly happy, and a bit more satisfied, when they were occupied with solving a crime that had nothing to do with either of them personally, as they were in Dragon Tattoo. That first book’s intricate details -- the hacking, the sex, the dark motivations, the delicious politics and twisted secrets of the wealthy Vanger family -- were (and remain) unforgettable. The conceit here of having Blomqvist and Salander solve Salander’s own mystery, while it certainly has its rewards, left me in the end wishing their world were a bit wider, less tightly focused on themselves. Since finishing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I’ve thought, now and again, about a 007 novel in which the case Bond tackles is all about him and not about stopping some cleverly named megalomaniac off to destroy the world. I wonder if, in his next seven books, Larsson would have returned to the format of the first novel, with Blomqvist and Salander solving crimes like a modern-day, Swedish version of Holmes and Watson. Alas, we’ll never know.

What we do know is this: The man, a true master of his genre, gave us three indelible novels that left us absolutely breathless. What more could be want? Bravo!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo, indeed! Larsson's trilogy makes me extremely proud of my Swedish roots. I only wish the books could continue.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 7:49:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished Hornet's Nest - am bereft that there will not be more Larsson novels. Really feeling a deep sense of loss - he would have had a long and very successful career. I found Nest a little dense in the early stages, even struggled to get through the first third, but once all the characters and plot lines were established, I flew through it, going to bed early and staying up until three every morning because I couldn't put it down. BRAVO!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 9:45:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a smartphone but a palm top computer!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 2:09:00 AM PDT  

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