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

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 576 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

Damaged Goods

Lisbeth Salander is broken, maybe beyond repair.

Wanted for three murders in Stockholm, she shows up in the Emergency Room in Goteborg still breathing but with a bullet in her head. Her other wounds have been patched with duct tape, an improvisation the doctor on call admires as he preps her for life-saving surgery assisted by an American surgeon with a blood alcohol level that’s off the charts. (The depiction of that surgery is not for the squeamish.)

Meanwhile the man transported with Lisbeth—a former Russian-agent-turned-gangster named Alexander Zalachenko—is struggling for survival in another part of the hospital. He has a massive wound to his face, the result of an assault with an axe. It was Lisbeth who swung the blow after climbing from a shallow grave where she was buried, and though lawyers will try to prove otherwise, it was self-defense. She has been protecting herself against Zalachenko her whole life. He is her father.

The late Steig Larsson’s final mystery, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, begins one page after The Girl Who Played With Fire ends, so readers will be completely lost if they have not read the earlier book. It’s not just that the action of the earlier book sets up what’s going on, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest also gives us the grisly circumstances that turned Lisbeth into who and what she is. Some people might call her a monster, including some who deserve that label themselves. Some people might even be right.

Investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who knows all of Lisbeth’s secrets and still cares about her, literally saves her life but also becomes her tireless champion—whether she wants him to or not. It’s not easy being her friend and getting to the next level is nigh impossible. With Lisbeth stuck in jail awaiting the beginning of her trial, he’s the man on the outside killing himself to prove her innocence while also chronicling a wider story. Not that she’s all that helpless behind bars. Give this woman an internet connection and she’ll do the rest.

The relationship between these two mismatched characters is the heart and soul of the book and the closest thing to a healthy connection there is. In another author’s hands these familiar types might have been clichés, but Larsson makes them people we can believe in. That realistic core helps anchor the book when the conspiracies start widening and some of the action gets a little over the top. The author makes it clear in a prologue that he sees Lisbeth as a warrior woman and she lives up to the billing in a way that Kill Bill’s heroine might recognize.

This is a book filled with people who are not quite “right.” There are stupid people, like a cop named Paulsson who refuses to listen to Blomkvist’s warnings and sends a young cop to his death. There’s Teleborian, who writes his psychiatric profile of Lisbeth before he actually examines her, hoping to paint her as a sociopath. Lisbeth has a past with Teleborian, a past that’s sketched in here but detailed fully in The Girl Who Played With Fire. In a way, Teleborian disturbs us even more than the brutish Niedermann, who likes burying his victims alive, and might as well be the Terminator with his lack of pain receptors. There’s a reason why Alexander always uses him as an assassin and as that reason becomes clear, so does Lisbeth’s connection to him.

The plot runs along several parallel tracks that eventually converge in Blomkvist’s explosive expose of corruption at the highest political levels. One of the strands that branches off the main story involves Blomkvist’s former colleague at Millennium magazine, a woman named Erika Berger who is labeled a “media whore” and worse by her enemies. That story is filled with the kind of bitter office politics any working person can appreciate. The free-wheeling Susanne Linder’s solution to Berger’s stalker problem is extremely pleasing, and what happens next is very satisfying. There’s a real sense here that evil people who have been exploiting their citizens are going to get their just desserts, even if it means that justice is extra-legal.

That’s not to say the book is entirely satisfying. As the depth of the various conspiracies is revealed, there are a number of “explainer” scenes where various characters stand around talking about who did what and when and where. There are some really clunky dialogue moments. Readers will groan at the scene where the snuff-dipping Linder (another warrior woman) confronts a stalker with the words, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.”

Larsson was an investigative journalist and a political activist, so there’s authenticity here in the way the story unfolds. He ties his fictional version of The Section into real-life events, including the assassination of Swedish P.M. Olaf Palme. (A drug addict was arrested and convicted of the murder but was later released on appeal; no other killer has ever been found.)

The author knew the world he depicted and used his knowledge to make it real to his readers. He also lived in a world filled with cutting edge technology and he used that to flesh out Lisbeth’s life as a glorified hacker. Someone is always turning on a Palm Tungsten T3 and doing something that’s not strictly legal. Sometimes the scenes with email messages get a little tedious, but overall, we have to admire the way Lisbeth (especially) uses the tools of her trade.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is dark as a midwinter night in Stockholm and just as cold. At times, in fact, it’s almost clinical. Still, there is warm blood just beneath the surface of the pages. This is not the best of the three books that Larsson called The Millennium Trilogy, but unless Larsson’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson finds another manuscript, it is the last.

A scene between Lisbeth and her attorney (who respectfully declines Lisbeth’s lesbian advances) suggests there were a lot more stories to come about the troubled young genius and the disgraced journalist. It is a pity we’ll never read them.

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