By Stieg Larsson
Knopf. 576 pp. $27.95.
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Reviewed by John Timpane
Well, it's here.
For weeks, bookstores throughout the country have loaded special tables with copies of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire - next to a "Coming Soon" sign. Now "soon" is here.
With The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, a third stack of books will now beckon readers of the "Millennium trilogy" (which has sold more than 27 million books worldwide) and its unlikely team of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. Now that Hornet's Nest has kicked, we can survey the entire trilogy - and realize it's even better than the hype.
The books carry the added frisson of a voice from beyond the grave: The author died in 2004, before a single copy ever sold. As you should have heard by now, Swedish author Larsson had the first book in readiness when he suffered a massive, fatal heart attack. He never saw his first volume become a worldwide publishing sensation. Two more manuscripts existed, and with Hornet's Nest, the trilogy is now complete. The first is now a fine, faithful Swedish film.
The key lies in the Swedish title of the first volume: Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women. The misogyny of male-dominated institutions - industry, law enforcement, social services, national security, dynastic families - trusses this trilogy like a rod through rebar.
At the focus of it all stands Lisbeth Salander, surely one of the strangest characters in recent fiction.
Salander has suffered at the hands of men all her life. She firebombs her father's car when she is small (an act we learn is not totally crazy), and then is imprisoned in the mental-health institutions of Sweden until early adulthood. Once released, she's lucky enough to find a sympathetic legal guardian. He sees in this traumatized, antisocial woman - who veers between Asperger's-like fixity and extreme, computer-powered brilliance - a woman worthy of respect and protection.
Through two huge novels taking us through a cold case (Tattoo) and a teeth-gritting chase (Fire), Salander is again and again threatened by powerful men and institutions. She is beaten by hired thugs in a subway tunnel. A new legal guardian, the hateful, oleaginous Nils Bjurman, sodomizes her (in a scene now notorious because of its graphic depiction in the film) and threatens to have her locked up again if she doesn't comply. She won't go to the police or other authorities because she doesn't trust them - for good reason. Even her family are after her. At the beginning of Hornet's Nest, she's near death in a hospital and knows someone is trying to break in and kill her.
Hornet's Nest finally drills down to the reason Salander has been singled out from all sides. It's quite a reason. Book and trilogy amount to an epic study of how corrupt institutions persist even when time has passed them by - and how those dedicated to them, the men who hate women, hang on like death.
Like the first two novels, this one is lucidly, grippingly written. Larsson was a smart investigative journalist who knew how things work: Some of his best scenes depict police departments, magazine staffs, espionage cadres, and lawyers making decisions. He's also a writer of this very moment. His characters move among the machines of this life, the car alarms, cell phones, minicameras, mobile computers, and surveillance tech that weave us in; he's splendid at showing how most of us settle into life among the media. As usual, Salander is way ahead; she knows how to manipulate systems and information, often illegally, to protect and enrich herself - and exact revenge.
Her odd partner, Blomkvist, is a self-portrait of Larsson: As Larsson did, he helps run a brave little investigative mag titled Millennium (the one Larsson headed, Expo, is famous in Sweden). He's a combination of sexual fecklessness and absolute professional and personal integrity. (He keeps his promises, protects sources when ethical, and never leaks information.) You can't say he and Salander are lovers, though they make love; you can say he cares for her and seeks to restore the dignity and freedom she has been denied.
Where Salander works by slashing, unguessed strokes, often stoked by vicious vengefulness and disregard for law (as long as the right people are punished), Blomkvist relies on skills, on dogged, hard-earned know-how. Between the two, a snarled, sick skein of international intrigue, involving ancient corruption at the highest levels, untangles.
Two very attractive characters come into play. One, Annika Giannini, is Blomkvist's sister and a lawyer. She's a fresh surprise, especially when Armageddon comes to the courtroom. The second, superwoman-genius Monica Figuerola, falls in love with Blomkvist; they make a bemused, amusing couple.
You could read Fire without having read Tattoo, but I don't see how you could read this book alone, or without the other two. Its roots are sunk too deep. Larsson carefully buttons all buttons, ties all laces, reaching back to Tattoo and Fire - and there are many. Salander can never be safe unless the whole institutional cat's cradle is ripped apart. Revelations and scandals go deep, very deep. The book's Swedish title, Luftslottet som sprängdes, or The Castle in the Air That Blew Up, gives a sense of how big it all is, involving the vexed European politics of the last 40 years. And Larsson was one canny literary architect: Just when the book seems wrapped, we have one more explosive climax coming.
Rather than lament that we shall have no more Larsson, let's celebrate Tattoo, Fire, and Hornet's Nest - a remarkable feat of patient, fascinating storytelling, eye for detail, feel for the real world, a monument of craft and cleverness. To say Salander and Blomkvist are "unforgettable" is a crazy understatement. Almost nothing about these books is ordinary. Scenes, themes, and characters stay in the mind. And stay. And make you want to start all over again, from the very top, as if you didn't know what a wild, careening ride you had in store. The Millennium trilogy is, so far, the trilogy of the millennium.