Stieg Larsson – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (TGWKTHN) (2009)

The third In Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, which has taken the mystery world by storm over the past two years, sees a rogue section within Sweden’s Intelligence Services (SAPO) determined to protect their secrets at any cost; to this end they need in particular to ensure that Lisbeth Salander, the trilogy’s protagonist, is once again certified as insane and immured in an asylum. Ranged against them and determined to see Salander freed and vindicated are a strange  range of  allies – Mikael Blomkvist the crusading journalist leads this coalition, which includes Milton Armansky, her old boss and head of a private security company; Blomkvist’s journalist colleagues at Millenium magazine and his occasional lover Erica Berger who has just been appointed Editor of one of Sweden’s biggest daily newspapers; Salander’s acquaintances in the world-wide hacking community,  and assorted honest cops and, indeed, honest members of SAPO.

Many  of the comments which I made in respect of the second book in the trilogy (The Girl Who Played With Fire – see https://mysterymile.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/larsson-the-girl-who-played-with-fire/ ) also apply here. In particular TGWKTHN, like the second book, lacks that element which made the first book (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) such a sensation: namely the combination of deep and vivid social criticism and analysis with a traditional locked-room (or more accurately locked-island) plot. To an even greater extent than is the case with the second book, TGWKTHN demands to be read after you have read the first two; not only will it make little sense otherwise, but also its most potent appeal will be lost. This appeal is the assurance which the book somehow gives that all is going to come right in the end; the good will win, evil will be defeated and the bad guys (all the bad people are men – it can be argued that this is social realism, given that the bad people are also either secret service people/policemen/gangsters all of which professions are very male dominated although there are also evil psychiatrists and lawyers; in fact I think that Larsson writes – and this is no bad thing – with a feminist agenda and many of the crimes are precisely those of men against women) will meet their just desserts. When this happens, at the end of the book, it is tremendously satisfying to those who have followed the saga from the beginning, and the court-room denouement will (or should if the Director is even half-way competent) work wondrously well when the movie is made. However the problem with this is that there is very little suspense, not to mention a complete absence of mystery. Indeed one becomes aware that there is a certain amount of padding going on : an unnecessary, fairly uninteresting and definitely unoriginal sub-plot involving a stalker who sets his sights on Erica; yet another love affair for Blomkvist, this time with Figuerola, one of the good SAPO people. Indeed for all the feminism and the quotations about female warriors which Larsson intersperses into the narrative, the fact is that because of the brilliance of his characterisation of Salander, the secondary female characters tend to be utterly overshadowed and unmemorable. As always the book takes on a special radiance whenever Salander is on the page, which dims when – and that is quite a lot of the time here – she leaves it. I have to admit there were times when, for all Larsson’s undoubted narrative skills, I felt TGWKTHN dragged. One reason for this may be that the book is translated; but I doubt whether even in the original Swedish Larsson’s prose is startlingly arresting or brilliant – the interest is concentrated in the narrative, the characters and the sociopolitical analysis and he does not have Ellroy’s (to take the example currently uppermost in my mind) linguistic gifts to fall back on. In this third volume the analysis is of substantially less interest than the former two books; this is because it mainly concentrates on the, to me fairly uninteresting, topic of the Swedish security services, which do not seem very different to the British or American ones and their misdeeds have been extensively covered elsewhere. Indeed one has to go further and say that Larsson’s analysis seems a little threadbare when set alongside masters like Le Carre or Ellroy.

For all these criticisms – and they certainly debar the book from greatness in my view – TGWKTHN is an essential read for those who have been following the Millenium Trilogy from the beginning, and the concluding triumphs of Blomkvist and his allies and above all of Salander are highly satisfying emotionally. I think however that the saga is fully written out. If the second and third volumes do not match the brilliance of the first we can at least say that in Salander Larsson has created one of mystery fiction’s great heroines and protagonists.

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