Book Review – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – By Stieg Larsson

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the third installment of the ­trilogy; its predecessors, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” have already sold a million copies combined in the United States and many times that abroad. All three books are centered on two ­principal characters: a fearless middle-aged journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes an Expo-like magazine called Millennium, and a slight, sullen, socially maladjusted, tech-savvy young goth named Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the books’ titles, who, in addition to her dragon tattoo, possesses extraordinary hacking abilities and a twisted, complicated past. Together, Blomkvist and Salander use their wiles and skills to take on corporate corruptos, government sleazes and sex criminals, not to mention these miscreants’ attendant hired goons.

This all might sound rather Euro-cheesy, a bit Jean-Claude Van Damme, but it’s not. Larsson was a cerebral, high-minded activist and self-proclaimed feminist who happened to have a God-given gift for pulse-racing narrative. It’s this offbeat combination of attributes — imagine if John Grisham had prefaced his writing career not by practicing law in Mississippi but by heading up the Stockholm office of Amnesty International — that has made the series such a sui generis smash.

Larsson’s is a dark, nearly humorless world, where everyone works fervidly into the night and swills tons of coffee; hardly a page goes by without someone “switching on the coffee machine,” ordering “coffee and a sandwich” or responding affirmatively to the offer “Coffee?” But this world is not dystopian. The good guys (or, I should say, the morally righteous people of all genders) always prevail in the end. The books, translated by Reg Keeland, are not lightweight in any sense — their combined bulk, at upward of 500 pages apiece, will strain the biceps of even the most Bunyan­esque U.P.S. delivery­man — but they’re extra­ordinarily fleet of movement and utterly addicting.

The first in the series, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is an especially artful construction, its thriller intrigue enrobed in a Dominick Dunne-style screwy-rich-people tale. When we meet Blomkvist, his professional reputation has been momentarily blotted by a libel verdict against him, and he has grudgingly accepted a private assignment from an elderly, wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger: to crack the unsolved mystery of Vanger’s favorite great-niece’s disappearance some 40 years earlier. Vanger’s people have taken the precaution of ordering a background check on Blomkvist, hiring a security firm that sics its most ruthless researcher, Salander, on him. It’s not until halfway through the story that Blomkvist learns of his vetting and his minxlike vetter, but when he does, he seeks out Salander to be his partner in the vanished-niece investigation, and, lo, Larsson’s dynamic duo is born. This being Sweden, they also indulge in the occasional bout of casual sex.

If you haven’t read “Dragon Tattoo,” I recommend that you forgo the remainder of this review and plunge into it headlong, both because you’ll enjoy yourself and because, as the kids say, spoilers lie ahead. With each sequel, Larsson simply picked up where he had left off, so it’s tough to discuss the final volume of the series without acknowledging some of the big reveals of its predecessors.

The second book, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” is something of a comedown. Book 1 has a wintry elegance to it, as the investigation compels Blomkvist (and, later, Salander) to move up north from Stockholm to the Vanger family’s remote island compound, a bleakly beautiful place dotted with houses inhabited by relatives who distrust one another. The dysfunctional Vangers are one of Lars­son’s better inventions: their alli­ances and schisms are perfectly observed; the psychic damage wrought by their privileged life is all too authentic.

But Book 2 is more cartoonish. Unmoored from the Vangers, Larsson relies more on implausible villains, far-fetched coincidences and unsurvivable-in-real-life episodes of violence. This doesn’t stop “Played With Fire” from being entertaining, but it’s silly and over the top. ­Blom­­kvist is back on the job at Millennium, and we are forced to swallow the facts that (a) the sinister, shadowy sex trafficker his magazine is hot on the trail of, Alexander Zalachenko, just so happens to be Salander’s father, and a former Soviet spy to boot; (b) Zalachenko’s chief henchman, a big galoot named Ronald Niedermann, is afflicted/blessed with a rare defect called congenital analgesia, which makes him impervious to physical pain; (c) Zalachenko manages to frame Salander as the prime suspect in a series of murders committed by Niedermann; and (d) Salander, in a climactic confrontation with Zalachenko and Niedermann, survives being shot and buried alive by them, then uses her cigarette case to claw out of her grave and then manages, despite having grievous physical injuries and a bullet lodged in her brain, to swing an ax into her father’s head — though he, too, somehow doesn’t die.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST

By Stieg Larsson

Translated by Reg Keeland. 563 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95

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Book 3, gratifyingly, brings the action back to a place somewhat resembling reality and, in so doing, restores dignity to the franchise. It begins with both Salander and Zalachenko in the hospital in critical condition, and Blomkvist on the case to exonerate the one and finger the other. The possibility that Zalachenko will be exposed to public scrutiny introduces a clever new wrinkle: the reactivation of some retired Swedish cold warriors whose responsibility it was, during the Soviet era, to harbor, handle and re-ID Zalachenko after he defected to Sweden in the mid-1970s.

These old spies don’t want their cover blown, or that of the ultrasecret unit of the Security Police for which they worked, the Section for Special Analysis. So Salander and Blomkvist are presented with yet another adversary, this one from within the depths of the very government that should be protecting them. It’s all skillfully interlaced: the turf wars between the police and intelligence agencies; the back story and continuing skulduggery of the Section; the dogged shoe-leather journalism of Blomkvist and the Millennium staff; and Salander’s impressive ability to marshal the forces of her hacker peers from her hospital bed.

And for fans of the first two books, there are plenty of the Larssonian hallmarks they have come to love: the rough justice meted out by Salander to her enemies; the strong, successful female characters, like Blomkvist’s lawyer sister, Annika ­Giannini, and Millennium’s editor in chief, Erika Berger; and the characters’ acutely Swedish, acutely relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. Berger and Blomkvist are occasional lovers, and have been since Book 1, despite her being married and his irrepressible penchant for tomcatting. It’s all cool: their dalliance has the blessing of her husband, Greger, who sometimes sleeps with men. As Larsson writes about Berger: “In the early ’90s . . . she and Greger had been guests of the glass artist Torkel Bollinger at his villa on the Costa del Sol. During the vacation Berger had discovered that her husband had a definite bisexual tendency, and they had both ended up in bed with Torkel. It had been a pretty wonderful vacation.”

There are moments in “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” as there are in the two earlier books, in which Larsson the pamphleteer gets the better of Larsson the novelist. The original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Man Som Hatar Kvinnor,” or “Men Who Hate Women,” and this sort of ham-handed didacticism at times interferes with Larsson’s natural storytelling ability. Near the end of Book 3, Blomkvist is actually made to speak the words “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” Save it for the study guide, Stieg! Likewise, Berger is assigned a subplot — in which she takes a new job as editor of a major newspaper and acquires a stalker who leaves notes that address her as “whore” — that has no bearing whatsoever on the main story, and seems to exist only to demonstrate how down Larsson is with all the oppressed ladies in the house.

But these transparently “activist” moments are forgivable, as is the pathological coffee drinking, a tic that recurs so relentlessly that I don’t think Larsson realized it was a tic. A thought on this subject: Many of the Larsson faithful subscribe to a belief that the author’s premature death was not of natural causes. He had been threatened in real life by skinheads and neo-Nazis; ergo, the theories go, he was made dead by the very sorts of heavies who crop up in his novels. But such talk has been emphatically dismissed by Larsson’s intimates. So let me advance my own theory: Coffee killed him. If we accept that Blom­k­vist is, in many respects, a romanticized version of Larsson, and that Blomkvist’s habits reflected the author’s own, Larsson overcaffeinated himself to death. Of course, the cigarettes and junk food to which both men are/were partial couldn’t have helped, either.

In any event, it’s sad that Larsson died, and that “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the last book he finished. I’m not surprised at the reports that many American readers, suspended in mid-­momentum by the ambiguous ending of Book 2, sprang for pricey imports of the British edition of Book 3 instead of awaiting its publication here. Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.

via Book Review – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – By Stieg Larsson – NYTimes.com.

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