The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the last book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium novels concerning his literary cult creation, Lisbeth Salander. The series has generated at least two films and a rabid following. It's a deserved following, in my opinion, because Mr. Larsson came up with an updated version of Holmes-and-Watson and made it work. Unfortunately, Mr. Larsson's success was posthumous.

The Millennium trilogy is a single, three-part, work, although the last two parts are more connected than the first. I won't do spoilers or get to much into the twisting plot, but the book teasers do tell you that this story begins with Salander in the hospital with a bullet in her head. That should catch a potential reader's interest as well as it serves to carry readers from the second to third books. I thought it was gutsy of Mr. Larsson to kill off, then resurrect his popular protagonist in the second book. Of course, that further cements the series' connection to Sherlock Holmes, who was also killed-off and brought back by A. C. Doyle (though not in the same book). But Salander has problems besides her head injury. She is suspected of a triple homicide, sought by a villainous motorcycle gang, threatened with being locked up in a psych unit again by rogue government authorities, has put the closest things she has to friends in danger, and is cut-off from all computer access. That's good stage-setting for a lot of drama.

And that drama largely concerns just who Lisbeth Salander is: where she came from and why she is the way she is. Mr. Larsson does answer these questions and they are nature-nurture answers with the answers coming down mostly on the nurture side. Salander's upbringing was, to say the least, dysfunctional. That is hinted at in the first book along with the institutionalized abuse she suffered, but the reasons behind it all are revealed in this last book.

That reasoning concerns some intricate plotting at the core of which is an "unofficial" section of the Swedish security agency, SAPO (which seems to be an FBI-CIA look-alike), and its dealings to protect a Russian defector during the cold war. The agency's machinations (or at least of its rogue part) to protect the defector lead directly to the abuses suffered by Salander. Of course, they also lead to her creation as an antihero crimefighter (with a particular bent to work against woman abusers). With that foundation, Mr. Larrson unwinds his story, and it is a long unwinding.

The strength of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, as with the other books in the series, is undoubtedly it's protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. Though she spends a lot of the novel in the hospital, she does finally come to her trademark computer skills and antisocial behavior. She even, almost accepts friendships, though she fights the impulse. And though barely topping five feet in height, she still kicks butt when she needs to.

Another strength is the involved plot (though there is also a down side to it). It is entwined from many threads that connect a defecting Russian psychopath, a secret Swedish agency, and official corruption to Salander's dysfunctional childhood. Mr. Larsson comes at this plot from a number of different angles and in the process shows us a lot about the functionings of the Swedish government, the Swedish police, mental institutions, and the workings of large publications (at least Swedish ones). The latter was the most interesting for me. That, along with the sections when Salander is working her computer magic, provide inspiration for me for when I'm writing and makes me feel like I'm doing something. Maybe that's also a lot of Salander's appeal. Very few authors have been able to make sympathetic characters out of computer hacks and it's generally done with an antihero protagonist. Mr. Larsson does that with Salander, but goes further to create a truly interesting character.

Mikael Blomkvist is a good foil to Salander. His crusading, womanizing, straightness stands in contrast to her bend-all-the-rules approach to everything. It is her abused brilliance that comes out, however, and earns her respect from those who care enough to see it. It also earns her their loyalty and abiding friendship, even though she is not comfortable in accepting them. Blomkvist is the foremost of these loyal friends and he provides the establishment support she needs to get by without becoming an outlaw. And the fact that Mr. Larsson made him a journalist--a writer--makes him the Watson character who can provide the documentary evidence of Salander's exploits for posterity.

There are, however, some drawbacks to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Mostly, the book is too long. A long book is OK if it's long with storytelling. Unfortunately, Hornet's Nest is long with repetitions of plot threads (the same story section told from two or more viewpoints; in some stories this is OK but it's overdone here) and needless banter. Regarding the latter, there's a part where Berger is being given an overview of the security system she's had installed in her house and the talk goes on for several pages. For what was necessary for the plot, it could have been dispensed with in a paragraph. There are numerous examples of this, where characters go on talking about peripheral items like relationships and politics which have scant connection to the plot or anybody's character. It makes the narrative grind down to a point of prompting the reader to give up.

Also, Salander is in the hospital for about the first half of the book and she's not doing enough during that time. Even worse, there are long stretches where Salander is nowhere in sight. The other characters, except maybe Blomkvist, cannot support the story like she can. Indeed, like Sherlock Holmes, the story is very secondary to the character of its quirky protagonist. This book should have been greatly condensed around the characters of Salander and Blomkvist. Now all those sections where we see the workings of the police task force, and the SAPO section, and the magazine and newspapers where neat in their place, but they were too long and overshadowed Salander and Blomkvist when they should not have.

The "Note About the Author" at the end of the book says Mr. Larsson delivered the manuscripts (presumably to the publisher) for the entire trilogy shortly before his death. This makes me wonder if he actually completed them (although I suspect he had the very last sentence written long before the second two books were done). An awful lot of the "excess" I've noted for the second two books sounds like backstory to me, and a lack of editing. If that's true, then Mr. Larsson joined the likes of George Orwell in hurrying to complete a manuscript before his death. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, but I think a sympathetic editor would have done better justice to the manuscripts.

Or maybe the Swedish have longer attention spans and they like their novels that way.

Regardless, I think the genius in Mr. Larsson's work is his main character. Watching Lisbeth Salander work and strike out against her exploiters is the fun of the books. It is great fun watching Ms Salander solve a mystery using her computer (like watching Mr. Holmes do it with his computer-like intellect) and being supported by her faithful, journalistic, companion (same as Holmes). In his Millennium series of novels, Stieg Larsson has created a literary character who is destined to become a classic, and a lot of fun for readers. It is a shame that he is no longer around to continue Ms Salander's exploits, but then, maybe the torch will be handed off.