The stunning third and final novel in Stieg Larsson’s internationally best-selling trilogy
Lisbeth Salander—the heart of Larsson’s two previous novels—lies in critical condition, a bullet wound to her head, in the intensive care unit of a Swedish city hospital. She’s fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she’ll be taken back to Stockholm to stand trial for three murders. With the help of her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, she will not only have to prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she will plot revenge—against the man who tried to kill her, and the corrupt government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life.
Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now Salander is fighting back.
You can read an excerpt here.
I saw the movie before I read the book, and honestly I have to say I think I prefer the movie adaptation (the Sweedish version).
While The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo was based firmly on a locked room mystery paradigm, with a strong side of serial killer, and The Girl Who Played With Fire was more a classic frame up story, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest waffles uneasily between a legal thriller and a spy story, and has a marked tendency to wander. And while by and large everything does tie back into Blomkvist’s crusde to get Lisbeth acquitted, there is an unfocused quality to this story, with a second act largely sidetracked by a massively fruitless stalker plot surrounding Erika Berger, and a third act that stumbles after the trial until it falls conveniently into a final confrontation, not to mention the random nature of the Lisbeth/Doctor friendship at the beginning. So while this book provides a fair amount of resolution, it just never manages to feel fully cohesive.
It doesn’t help that Lisbeth is largely sidelined from the investigations that make up the majority of this book. Stuck in a hospital or prison for most of the story, Lisbeth works in a little hacking here and there, but without her leading the charge, we’re pretty much in standard cop and journalist territory. And while Larsson’s journalistic background gives the investigation detail and density, he can’t quite disguise the fact that Blomkvist is largely pursuing proof of what we already know. This story is about pinning it to the bad guys – the who and why were already covered in The Girl Who Played with Fire – and it’s just inherently less interesting than unraveling a mystery.
Still, that’s not to say the investigation is boring, because it easily held my attention. Larsson clearly knows his way around government bureaucracy and easily created a believable conspiracy. The history of the secret spy cabal within the Swedish government has plenty of interesting detail, though it does require a fair bit of suspension of disbelief.
In many ways, Larsson’s strongest suit is in the details and subtext. Such as how Lisbeth, with her background and her legal status, provides a fascinating look into the system meant to support those at the fringes of society, and how her story demonstrates how easily people in that situation can be abused. Similarly, the stalker subplot is actually an interesting dissection of what police can actually do in that kind of situation – it’s only when you get to the end that you realize it really has nothing to do with the larger story. (And even despite it being interesting, I just couldn’t get over the sense that it had been created only to imbue the book with a convenient sense of menace.) Still, one good thing came out of it, and that was the brief but interesting Berger/Salander interaction, which nicely demonstrates how Lisbeth had grown, such that she can put aside her resentment of Berger to help her with her situation. However that one character grace note just wasn’t enough to justify such a large sidetrack.
There are plenty of the touches we’ve come to expect from a Larsson book – the usual threats and violence towards women, though this book has the least of the three, and the requisite casual sexual escapades that don’t really add to or detract from the story. The movies tossed most of Blomkvist’s sexual escapades, and I found I didn’t particularly miss them.
Easily my favorite part of this book – and the movie as well – were the legal proceedings. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Lisbeth confound the police and prosecutors, and watching Annika Giannini, Blomvkist’s sister and Lisbeth’s lawyer, annihilate the liars on the stand. But more importantly, the trial was a lovely cumulation of Lisbeth’s character arc – the fact that she stood for the trial, that she dared to work within the system that had so badly abused her in the past, is the ultimate show of trust in her friends and demonstrates just how far she’s come. Plus, to see her finally win is just undeniably satisfying.
After the trial, there is a scattered interlude where Lisbeth deals with finally becoming a full fledged member of society – and with having no idea what to do next – and it just felt like a stall. And then Lisbeth finally comes face to face with Neiderman (the blond giant from The Girl Who Played With Fire), which leads to a taut action sequence and the ultimate step in Lisbeth’s evolution – a moment that proves just how far she’s come since the first book, while still remaining true to the essence that makes her Lisbeth. It’s a nice character resolution, but I wish it had come about a little more directly – I vastly prefer the cleaner, faster way they managed it in the movie.
In the end, both the book and the movie, despite being somewhat cumbersome, effortlessly kept my interest. Larsson’s writing is spare and at times didactic, yet somehow he manages to blend a dark and detailed crime story with the pop sensability of a Michael Crighton or a James Patterson to create a unique blend of thriller. Plus his journalistic background lends his stories’ investigations an undeniable ring of veracity. In this era of the rising popularity of Nordic Noir, Steig Larsson is the Dan Brown of Swedish crime fiction – I can’t call his writing genius, but he is without doubt massively entertaining.
In comparing the book and movie, I find that everything I found ponderous about the movie was endemic to the book, and I now have come to greatly appreciate the movie’s streamlining, both because it ditched the stalker plot and because it attempted to create a sense of menace in a way that tied into the larger plot, focusing largely on Blomkvist. Plus, the movie pretty much did everything it could to put the spotlight back where it belonged – firmly on Lisbeth Salander. There is more to the book, in depth and detail, but honestly I prefer the structure of the movie.
In any case, I easily tore my way through this third – and sadly final – installment, and I was mostly satisfied with where Lisbeth and Blomkvist ended up. I particularly liked the tiny bits and pieces strewn through this story that demonstrated Lisbeth’s character growth, and it was extremely satisfying to see everyone get what they deserve; I just wish this book came together in a more cohesive way. It felt like a lot of different parts were slapped into one book, and while they were all interesting in different ways, this book failed to become something larger that the sum of its disparate parts.
Honestly, Lisbeth is such an interesting character that I can’t help but feel that this book is not the showcase finale she deserves – of course, Larsson never intended it to be. The Millenium series wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy; Larsson planned to write ten books overall. I guess we’re incredibly lucky that this book did give us some sense of a conclusion, such that we’re not left hanging in a completely tortuous way. So it is what it is, and what it is is a fast, slick, interesting read – it’s easy to see how these books captured the attention of the world.
Byrt Grade: B+/A-
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
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….Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.
When Swedish author Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he was only three books into his planned 10-volume Millennium series, an initially intoxicating mix of journalism, politics, and the partnership between a muckraking journalist and an antisocial hacker. It’s unfair to burden The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest with failing to close out the series correctly, but this disappointing installment is all delay, no payoff.
Some 50 pages before the end, Blomkvist sums up the nature of Salander’s experience: “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.” It is this moral purpose, if you like, that sets Larsson’s trilogy apart from most thrillers. There is no pornographic violence to pep up a dull chapter, no mindless technology, just everything woven together with purpose and, despite the high body count, in a plausible narrative. This is a grown-up novel for grown-up readers, who want something more than a quick fix and a car chase. And it’s why the Millennium trilogy is rightly a publishing phenomenon all over the world.