Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest [2010]

The cliffhanger ending of The Girl Who Played with Fire left me relatively eager to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest when it came out earlier this year, completing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. I know, I know, there's a possible fourth book, but it sounds like those will be mired in legal battles for the rest of time, so it's good that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest wrapped up a lot of the loose ends. Things being as they usually are, I got the hardback from the library when it came out, had to return it because I ran out of time, and instead listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Vance! As I believe I expressed in another review, anything read by Simon Vance is an automatic WIN as far as I am concerned. I must confess, toward the end I was lugging my CDs from my car to my house so that I could keep listening. But after I was finished, I had to get the book back through ILL so that I could write this review and get all the Swedish spellings right. The things I go through for my art! [dramatic swoon]

The backstory of the second and third books is complicated enough that it is explained over and over again to new characters who are being brought in on the case, and I will try to summarize as best I can. Lisbeth Salander, our anti-heroine from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the daughter of an ex-Russian spy, Alexander Zalachenko, who had been protected by the Swedish secret police for years in exchange for valuable information on Soviet activities. This ongoing operation was carried out in complete secret by a very small group within the secret police known as the Section. Unfortunately, Zalachenko was an abusive bastard who regularly beat Salander's mother, eventually to the point where she was permanently disabled. The Section regularly cleaned up after this and other messes to make sure that his identity remained secret. Receiving no help from the authorities, Salander took matters into her own hands and firebombed her father when she was twelve, then was committed to a mental institution to keep anyone from believing her stories about Zalachenko. Most, if not all, of Salander's subsequent troubles (being assigned a guardian who raped her, for example) are a direct result of the Section's attempts to keep the Zalachenko story under wraps.

When the action of the third novel begins, Salander is in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head (inflicted by her father), and Zalachenko is recovering in the room down the hall because she didn't quite manage to kill him with an axe to the face. It's a time of family bonding. With Salander slated to go to trial and Zalachenko threatening to expose everything, the aging members of the Section take swift action to head off threats to their anonymity, resulting in the deaths of several people. The story is an intricate tangle that intrepid Millennium magazine reporter Mikael Blomkvist must work day and night to unravel (with a double-digit supporting cast) before time runs out for Salander. The book's major subplot involves Millennium editor Erika Berger moving to take over editorial duties at Svenska Morgon-Posten, a prestigious career move that unfortunately results in her being sexually harassed.

Phew. After reading The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I have now spent more time than I ever thought I would contemplating the workings of the Swedish secret police.

As I said above, the details of the Section's past and the slow process of tracking them down is a part of the novel that grows a bit wearing after the tenth time or so. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a novel of small details. Larsson thought that people's stories were fascinating, so every character we meet (and there are many) is provided with a backstory, sometimes an extensive one. At times this careful explication bogs down the pace of the novel, and sometimes it provides additional depth. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller stuffed with action, this is not the book for you. Berger's stalker subplot does provide some intermediate thrills while Blomkvist and Salander are busy working out their strategy for clearing her name and getting her full legal rights, but it is a resolution that unfolds in a courtroom, at a trial that takes nearly 500 pages to set up. For me, it was a worthwhile payoff after three books in the making.

Grade: B+

Random thoughts:

One of the best things about Larsson's books is the number and depth of the female characters. Certainly they are idealized; his women are usually victims and rarely villains, but it is a sad commentary on the rest of our fiction that having so many female police officers, lawyers, newspaper editors, etc. should be remarkable. Apart from Lisbeth Salander herself, who is a sort of manic pixie hacker girl that everyone feels sympathy for, despite her antisocial ways, Berger is a strong character who is given particular depth in this last novel. In addition, Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini is enormously sympathetic as Salander's lawyer, while Larsson also spends a great deal of time examining the thoughts and motivations of two female police officers, Modig and Figuerola, as well as the security agent Susanne Linder. I do find it annoying, however, that women keep falling in love with Blomkvist. I suppose it adds a romantic element to the book, but it made my eyes roll more than it made my heart flutter.

It may sound silly, but it's kind of fascinating to read about Swedish history and politics and wonder how much of what Larsson is writing about is true. What if the United States had a department of Constitutional Protection? I also enjoy reading a crime novel in which the bad guys, especially the really bad guys, get their just desserts. Larsson isn't afraid to torture or kill off good people, but the major losses are definitely on the other side of the equation.

As I mentioned above, a lot of the loose ends were tied up in this volume, particularly those that had to do with Salander's family history. One important character that is left open-ended, however, is Salander's twin sister, who presumably is as clever and possibly as amoral as Lisbeth. It's a shame that Larsson died before he could write more books in the series, because it would be interesting to see where he planned to take it from this (relatively peaceful) point.

ETA: I think that Reg Keeland, who translated the books from the Swedish, did a great job. I don't think translators get enough props, given that the words they choose have such a huge impact on the atmosphere of a book.

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