By Patrick Anderson
Monday, May 24, 2010; C01
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST
By Stieg Larsson
Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Knopf. 563 pp. $27.95
Only now, with the publication of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," the third novel in the late Stieg Larsson's immensely popular Millennium trilogy, can we fully appreciate the Swedish writer's achievement. The trilogy ranks among those novels that expand the horizons of popular fiction.
In an amazing burst of creativity, Larsson wrote all three novels before he showed them to a publisher. Then in 2004 he died, of a heart attack at age 50, before the first was published. Each book can stand alone, but they are best considered as one long novel told in three installments, and no one should read them out of order. The first book, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is primarily a mystery about the disappearance of a young girl, but the next one, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," carries the story deep into the worlds of organized crime and political corruption. Larsson was a dedicated leftist, and ultimately his trilogy is best understood as a great, sprawling, angry political novel set in Sweden but confronting issues that resonate throughout the Western world.
Larsson brought together two unlikely partners to be his heroes. Mikael Blomkvist is a crusading left-wing journalist (like his creator) and very much the ladies' man. He joins forces with the "girl" of the three titles, the fascinating Lisbeth Salander -- punk, rebel, introvert, peerless hacker -- who at the age of 12 was railroaded into a mental hospital and only with difficulty gained her freedom. Together, they solve the mystery of the missing young girl, but in the next two books, the forces that oppressed Lisbeth as a child continue to pursue her. Gradually, we learn that the mystery surrounding her life arises from her father's involvement with a secret government intelligence cell that has carried out assassinations and otherwise operated outside Swedish law. Lisbeth has information that could send the cell's leaders to prison, and they are therefore determined to silence her.
As "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" begins, Lisbeth has a bullet in her brain, is in police custody and is charged with murder. For much of the novel, she is confined to a hospital as her enemies plot to have her sentenced to prison -- or, if that fails, killed -- even as Mikael fights to prove her innocence. I won't dwell on the specifics of the plot; suffice it to say that the novel fully lives up to the excellence of the previous two and that it brings the saga to a satisfactory conclusion.
The interesting question is how these books, by an unknown Swedish journalist, came to be an international publishing sensation. (An estimated 40 million copies have been sold worldwide, and this American hardback edition has an announced first printing of 700,000.) There are, I think, three reasons for this success. The most obvious is the brilliance of Larsson's narrative. It's a rich, exciting, suspenseful story, with a huge cast, and involves us deeply in Lisbeth's fate, even as it carries us into all levels of Swedish society.
Another reason for the trilogy's success is its political message. There are neo-Nazis, criminals and corporate villains in these books, but finally the enemy is corrupt government officials who wage war not only on individuals but on democracy itself. Readers throughout the world have recognized that rogue elements of government do operate in secret. To some degree, Larsson based his plot on real scandals in his own country, but the dangers he exposes are universal. Certainly, we in this country have seen more than our share of secret wars, secret arms deals, secret surveillance, secret assassination plots and secret torture.
The third reason for the trilogy's appeal, I think, is its passionate attack on sexism. A friend of mine objected to a scene in which Lisbeth demonstrated almost superhuman powers as she escaped from what seemed certain death. It's true that her escape defied reason, if you took it literally, but I think it's unwise to take these books entirely literally. At the start of this third volume, out of the blue, Larsson tells us that "from antiquity to modern times, there are many stories of female warriors, of Amazons" and digresses on women warriors in history and myth. He is clearly (and perhaps unnecessarily) telling us that Lisbeth is not simply a lone woman who has been persecuted but a mythic figure, an avenger fighting on behalf of all women against oppression.
The good people in these books -- including Mikael, Lisbeth and Mikael's longtime lover, Erika -- embrace consensual sex in all its manifestations: straight, gay, extramarital, serial, kinky, whatever. The villains are "men who hate women" (the title given the first novel in Sweden, but fortunately changed): rapists, child abusers, sex traffickers, even killers of women. Lisbeth -- abused and imprisoned as a child, raped as an adult -- hates those men and seeks revenge. Her nemesis in the second and third novels is a blond giant, a killer who is not terribly bright but terribly strong and, because of a freakish medical condition, unable to feel pain. This brute is Larsson's symbol of the world's enduring sexism, and ultimately the trilogy turns on whether Lisbeth can destroy this monster or he will destroy her.
All this -- the political honesty, the rage at sexism, the suspense, the overpowering narrative, the focus on modern sexual mores, the sexual tension between Mikael and Lisbeth -- has made the Millennium trilogy (named for the magazine Mikael writes for) not only a runaway commercial success but perhaps the best, most broadly focused examination of modern politics in popular fiction. Drawing on a quarter-century as a journalist, Larsson tells Lisbeth's story against an ambitious panorama that encompasses the worlds of journalism, corporations, medicine, organized crime, government, police and the courts, and he also makes unlikely but informed digressions into such areas as boxing and the manufacture of toilets. To have written these three novels may have killed Larsson, but he left a monument behind, a modern masterpiece.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.