Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010

As regular readers of this blog may remember, I posted reviews of the first two books in Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” series late last year.  Frugal to a fault, I’ve been waiting to write a review of the third book until it came out in paperback.  My wait came to an unexpected and happy end on Christmas, when I received a Kindle Touch from my wife and an Amazon.com gift card from my older son and daughter-in-law.  Here then is my long-delayed review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The third installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series begins where the second one ends.  Lisbeth Salander has been shot by Zalachenko, and is airlifted to Sahlgrenska Hospital in Göteborg with bullet wounds in her head, hip, and shoulder.  The surgery to save her life is successful, but her recovery is a lengthy one.

The reader spends much of Salander’s convalescence happily anticipating her trial, but before we get there, we must wend our way through several subplots.  One concerns The Section, an ultra-secret branch of Swedish Internal Security, and a group within The Section charged with handling the defector Zalachenko.  Another involves Erika Berger’s move to Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Svenska Morgon-Posten, and a determined stalker she encounters there.

As interesting as these subplots are, I found myself growing impatient to get back to Salander’s story.  I began to wish – as I had during The Girl Who Played with Fire – that Larsson had engaged the services of a judicious editor.  Before he actually gets back to Salander, however, I realized that hers is not the only story here.  Larsson wants to tell us about Blomqvist too, obviously, as well as Berger, Annika Giannini, Monica Figuerola, Susanne Linder, and others.  I get the feeling that once he set his characters in motion, he had no choice but to run after them as fast as he could, writing down everything they say and do.  Perhaps the breadth of Larsson’s story stems from his background as a journalist, which required him to report everything with minimal editing.  It’s all important to Larsson, and ultimately, to us too.

In any case, Larsson structures events in such a way as to create a suspense that is positively palpable, and a climax that is exceptionally satisfying.  The loose ends of the story – the tangled strands of the plots and subplots – are all masterfully resolved.

I am generally not a reader of popular fiction – there are still so many classics that I have yet to read – but I have made a three-fold exception in the case of the Millennium trilogy.  Why does Millennium matter?  First, I can’t help but admire Larsson’s ability to bring his characters to life.  They are, in a word, unforgettable, and I want to know them better and to share my enthusiasm for them with others, though given the enormous popularity of the series, my contribution in this area is hardly necessary.

Foremost among his creations is of course Lisbeth Salander.  As Blomqvist says, Lisbeth is “…certainly unique, and she’s the most antisocial person I’ve ever known.”  Although true, this is not the whole story.  Observing Lisbeth’s growth is one of the most rewarding aspects of the trilogy.  The line that reveals it best is something Lisbeth says to Annika Giannini: “I…I’m not good at relationships.  But I do trust you.”  This is a defining moment for Lisbeth, and certainly not something she would have said at the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Second, Millenium matters because of Larsson’s realism.  His characters and plots all have an unmistakable ring of truth to them.  Not only do we enjoy his series, we can learn from it.

Finally, Millenium matters because of the relevance of its themes, the most important of which is the hatred that some men – many men – feel toward women.  As Blomkvist himself says, “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.”  Lisbeth Salander becomes a heroic figure because of her uncompromising fight against this hatred, and her ultimate triumph over it.

As important as this theme is, however, we should keep in mind that Larsson’s view of men is primarily a positive one.  For every man in this trilogy who hates women, there are at least two who treat them with love and respect.

There is one more significant theme.  Larsson was a career journalist and investigative reporter, and well aware that governments are likely to confuse what is right with what is merely self-serving.  They are more than capable of lying to their citizenry, and engaging in massive cover-ups and disinformation campaigns.  As citizens, we need to be aware of this, and strive to distinguish the lies from the truth.  The difficulty, of course, lies in knowing whom to believe.  News outlets are all biased to some degree.  The news they choose to report and the way they report it are all influenced by that bias.  We ourselves are biased too, no matter how strenuously we might deny it.  What we see and hear is inevitably filtered through our biases.  Would we know the truth if we heard it?  How can we be sure?

At one point, the question is put to Blomkvist: “How is it possible that civil servants in the Swedish government will go so far as to commit murder?”  He responds, “The only reasonable explanation I can give is that over the years the Section developed into a cult in the true sense of the word.  They became like Knutby, or the pastor Jim Jones, or something like that.  They write their own laws, within which concepts like right and wrong have ceased to be relevant.  And through these laws they imagine themselves isolated from normal society.”

There are times, Larsson is saying, when it pays to be paranoid.

We can well regret that Larsson died after completing just three of ten projected books in this series.  He died in 2004, with a 4th novel 2/3 completed, according to those who knew him best.  Personally, I’m sorry that we never get to meet Lisbeth’s twin sister Camilla, and that the relationship between Blomqvist and Monica Figuerola isn’t given more of an opportunity to develop.  On the other hand, I’m grateful for what we have, and that the series doesn’t end with a cliffhanger.  What we have is a complete story, and a captivating one at that.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on December 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson;  Vintage Books, 2010

The second installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, begins one year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Mikael Blomqvist has weathered the tidal wave of attention that followed his exposé of Hans-Erik Wennerström, and Lisbeth Salander, who has been on an extended world tour, finds herself in the middle of a hurricane on the island of Grenada.  Their paths converge shortly after Lisbeth returns to Stockholm, when she is implicated in the triple murder of Dag Svensson, who had been working for Millennium on an exposé about sex-trafficking; his girlfriend Mia Johansson, and Salander’s court-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman.

The investigation into the three murders takes place on several fronts.  While the police are proceding on the assumption of Salander’s guilt, and Blomqvist is trying to establish her innocence, Lisbeth herself is content to follow the investigation from a distance, until she discovers a link between the murders and a pivotal event in her past, forever identified in her mind as “All The Evil”.  This link involves Säpo – the Swedish Security Police – and as Lisbeth probes deeper into the connection, we are introduced to a motley crew of characters, including men who prey on underage women, a blond giant with congenital analgesia, and finally, to the mysterious Zala himself.

Just as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson’s attention in this novel is focused unblinkingly on men who hate women.  In a telling passage, he writes,

Teleborian was the most loathsome and disgusting sadist Salander had ever met in her life, bar none.  He outclassed Bjurman by a mile.  Bjurman had been unspeakably brutal, but she could handle him.  Teleborian, on the other hand, was shielded behind a curtain of documents, assessments, academic honours and psychiatric mumbo jumbo.  Not a single one of his actions could ever be reported or criticized.  He had a state-endorsed mandate to tie down disobedient little girls with leather straps.

Unlike its predecessor novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire would have benefited from a little judicious editing.  Larsson dwells at unnecessary length on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and as I wended my way through the novel, it occurred to me more than once that if no one ever hacked into another computer, lit another cigarette, or bought one more Billy’s Pan Pizza, it would be just fine with me.  This small quibble notwithstanding, The Girl Who Played with Fire is in every way a worthy sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Throughout the story, Larsson evidences an unflagging attention to detail and unerring instinct for plot development.  Lisbeth Salander, while remaining – in the words of her friend Mimmi – “the most secretive and unapproachable person I know,” is arguably one of the most engaging heroines in recent memory.

If you haven’t already read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you should definitely read it first.  If, on the other hand, you’ve already read that book, then you hardly need my recommendation to go out and get this one.  Chances are, you already have it.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; Vintage Books, 2009

Every now and then, one happens upon a book so compelling that our life is essentially placed on hold until we finish reading it.  Beds go unmade, dishes languish in the sink, social obligations are postponed or ignored; everything waits until we finish the book.  One such book was Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs; another is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

A copy of this book fell into my hands during a recent trip to Denver, courtesy of my friend Kay Stevenson, and I was up until 2:00 last night reading it.  Briefly, the novel tells the story of Mikael Blomqvist, the co-owner and publisher of the financial watchdog magazine Millennium, and Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward, abundantly tattooed, fiercely independent private investigator and computer hacker extraordinaire.  Blomqvist is hired by aged industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate – and if possible, to resolve – the disappearance thirty-six years ago of his niece Harriet, and Blomqvist hires Salander to aid him in his pursuit.  The working out of this mystery is compelling in and of itself, but more enthralling still is the character development of the novel’s protagonists, especially Lisbeth Salander, who engages our interest and sympathies from start to finish.

Originally written in Swedish, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, “Men Who Hate Women”.  That title tells us a lot about the author’s central theme, which is the tendency of power to corrupt both morally and sexually.  Yet for every character in the book who does hate women, there is a Mikael Blomqvist, Holger Palmgren, Henrik Vanger, or Dragan Armansky, who love and respect them.  It is obvious also that Stieg Larsson himself loves women, or did.  Tragically, he died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a polemic on the evils of men; it is a psychological thriller, and a first-rate one at that.  As such, I heartily recommend it.

Just be sure you don’t have anything else you have to do.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 11:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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