THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST
By Stieg Larsson
Review by DAVID KAMP
“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is the third installment of the ¬trilogy; its predecessors, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” have already sold a million copies combined in the United States and many times that abroad. All three books are centered on two ¬principal characters: a fearless middle-aged journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, who publishes an Expo-like magazine called Millennium, and a slight, sullen, socially maladjusted, tech-savvy young goth named Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” of the books’ titles, who, in addition to her dragon tattoo, possesses extraordinary hacking abilities and a twisted, complicated past. Together, Blomkvist and Salander use their wiles and skills to take on corporate corruptos, government sleazes and sex criminals, not to mention these miscreants’ attendant hired goons.
This all might sound rather Euro-cheesy, a bit Jean-Claude Van Damme, but it’s not. Larsson was a cerebral, high-minded activist and self-proclaimed feminist who happened to have a God-given gift for pulse-racing narrative. It’s this offbeat combination of attributes — imagine if John Grisham had prefaced his writing career not by practicing law in Mississippi but by heading up the Stockholm office of Amnesty International — that has made the series such a sui generis smash.
Larsson’s is a dark, nearly humorless world, where everyone works fervidly into the night and swills tons of coffee; hardly a page goes by without someone “switching on the coffee machine,” ordering “coffee and a sandwich” or responding affirmatively to the offer “Coffee?” But this world is not dystopian. The good guys (or, I should say, the morally righteous people of all genders) always prevail in the end. The books, translated by Reg Keeland, are not lightweight in any sense — their combined bulk, at upward of 500 pages apiece, will strain the biceps of even the most Bunyan¬esque U.P.S. delivery¬man — but they’re extra¬ordinarily fleet of movement and utterly addicting.
The first in the series, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is an especially artful construction, its thriller intrigue enrobed in a Dominick Dunne-style screwy-rich-people tale. When we meet Blomkvist, his professional reputation has been momentarily blotted by a libel verdict against him, and he has grudgingly accepted a private assignment from an elderly, wealthy industrialist named Henrik Vanger: to crack the unsolved mystery of Vanger’s favorite great-niece’s disappearance some 40 years earlier. Vanger’s people have taken the precaution of ordering a background check on Blomkvist, hiring a security firm that sics its most ruthless researcher, Salander, on him. It’s not until halfway through the story that Blomkvist learns of his vetting and his minxlike vetter, but when he does, he seeks out Salander to be his partner in the vanished-niece investigation, and, lo, Larsson’s dynamic duo is born. This being Sweden, they also indulge in the occasional bout of casual sex.
If you haven’t read “Dragon Tattoo,” I recommend that you forgo the remainder of this review and plunge into it headlong, both because you’ll enjoy yourself and because, as the kids say, spoilers lie ahead. With each sequel, Larsson simply picked up where he had left off, so it’s tough to discuss the final volume of the series without acknowledging some of the big reveals of its predecessors.
The second book, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” is something of a comedown. Book 1 has a wintry elegance to it, as the investigation compels Blomkvist (and, later, Salander) to move up north from Stockholm to the Vanger family’s remote island compound, a bleakly beautiful place dotted with houses inhabited by relatives who distrust one another. The dysfunctional Vangers are one of Lars¬son’s better inventions: their alli¬ances and schisms are perfectly observed; the psychic damage wrought by their privileged life is all too authentic.
David Kamp, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, is the author of “The United States of Arugula.”