The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest; Stieg Larsson, Knopf,2010
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is, when all’s said and done, a paper chase, but it is still hold-your-breath exciting. Part of this is because Stieg Larrson invites us to root for the underdog, to join his characters vicariously in their fight for justice, but also because by book three we care about his characters, especially the strange, anti-social, violent and deeply vulnerable Lizbeth Salander.
This is the last book Larrson completed before his death and some call the three together the Millennium Trilogy. Rumors continue to surface about an incomplete 4th book (he planned a series of ten) or an outline and sample chapters. This will keep the Internet chattering and helps maintain Larrson’s mystique, but what we actually have are these three. Certain themes and clues in Hornet’s Nest, such as Salander’s missing sister and Blomqvist’s new love interest, give us some ideas about where Larrson was headed, but these are mostly grace notes in this book.
As the story opens, Salander is the most vulnerable we have ever seen her; fighting for her life in a locked ward of a hospital, a few yards down the hall from her murderous father who put a bullet in her head and buried her alive. As the story progresses, Salander’s jeopardy becomes, if possible, even more dire. Arrayed against her is a cadre of Cold-War-inspired secret police operatives, a shadow government, basically, corrupted by their own arrogance and willing to do anything to retain their power. Fighting them; Salander, recovering from brain surgery; Mikael Blomqvist and the staff of Millennium Magazine; Blomqvist’s sister, an attorney; a retired children’s advocate weakened by a severe stroke; and the anarchist citizens of Hacker Republic. At risk is not merely Salander’s life, but her autonomy and freedom.
The book abounds with official secrets, outright lies, doubled identities and falsified reports.
A subplot involving Blomqvist’s business partner Berger and the psychopath who is harassing her slows the action somewhat. Berger is facing a battle of her own, as she tries to turn around the big-name-daily paper that hired her as managing editor. This struggle against an ossified patriarchal system would have been enough of a B storyline, but again, it seems that Larsson had plans for future books and some groundwork was being laid here.
Each section opens with a quotation about women warriors and Amazons. The point seems to be that regardless of whether Amazons themselves existed, there have been women soldiers since there have been wars. Salander, in the first two books, has been practically an Amazon herself; more, an amine or manga super-heroine. At just over five feet tall, weighing less than 100 pounds, Salander can fight her way out of any situation. She can out-think, out-remember and out-hack anyone. With a bullet in her brain, she can dig her way out of a grave. In
The Girl Who Played With Fire, we learned some of Salander’s background.Now we see the price Salander has paid for her avenger status. We knew Salander had been dealt a bad hand, and in Hornet’s Nest we discover the details. Whatever genetic or neurological predispositions Salander might have for some of her behaviors, ultimately it is the shadow-government spooks, putting her needs second to their careers, who made her what she is.
Salander faces the world with her shield up and her weapons drawn. Since childhood, the people who were supposed to help Salander, parents, doctors, police and the government, have lied to her and betrayed her. In the egalitarian universe of the Hacker Republic, where favors are currency, she has no trouble with quid pro quo, but in the living world, in this book, she is forced to rely on people, to accept their help and to trust them. This is torture for Salander. Part of the reason for the Berger-psycho storyline is to give Salander a way to reach out to Berger, a person she has distrusted.
The suspense mounts because Salander has put her trust in others. They won’t betray her, but will they let her down? Are the governmental forces arrayed against them too powerful?
At the end of the book, the resolution is more personal. Salander is still standing. She must reach out to Blomqvist. Finally, cautiously, she lowers her shield.