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Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Lisbeth Salander, that petite avenging angel with a wicked sting, is back in Stieg Larsson’s riveting conclusion of his Millenium Trilogy.

For those of you not familiar with Larsson’s novels, they can be described as a combination of James Bond journalist meets feminist hacker extraordinaire thriller mystery spy novels.  Larsson created an unusual pair of collaborators in Mikail Blomkvist, the publisher of the investigative journal magazine, Millenium, and Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social genius, who is her own one woman posse against the abuse of women.  Ironically, in the last two novels, the pair have two whole scenes where they are in the same room together.  The rest of the time, they have to find clever ways to communicate through an almost impenetrable wall of security.

In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, we pick up the threads from the previous novel, which ended with a cliffhanger.  Hornet’s Nest opens with Lisbeth in intensive care, having been shot in the head by her own father who she is accused of attempting to murder.  She lead Mikail “Kalle” Blomkvist on a chase throughout the last novel, where he gradually uncovers her troubling past and starts to realize the magnitude and power of her enemies.   In the final novel, Lisbeth’s case reaches into the very core of Swedish politics and its security services.  Lisbeth’s enemies want to disappear her to a psychiatric institution for the rest of her life in order to keep their secrets.  It’s Blomkvist’s task, along with an almost Dickensian cast of supporting characters, to expose the truth before Lisbeth gets carted away in a strait jacket.  To free her, he needs Lisbeth herself to employ her incredible hacking skills.  But how to do it from the hospital where she’s recovering, under tight security and the prison where she’s shortly to be sent to await trial?

There’s also a subplot regarding Blomkvist’s long time lover, Erica Berger, which should be subtitled “Men At Work”.  Berger leaves her post at Millenium to become Editor-in-Chief of what sounds like the Swedish equivalent of the New York Times.  She encounters institutional sexism of the subtle and maddening kind that only a woman would know about.  You know, the passive-aggressive non-compliance of her male colleagues, the continuous undermining of her authority by men who appeal to higher authorities, the guys that refuse to answer their emails and drag their feet when they’re summoned or “forget” to invite her to important meetings, the guys that change her work without telling her, substituting their own decisions for hers.  Shit like that.  It’s not sexual harrassment.  It’s just an environment of stone walling, dismissiveness and undermining.  In this case, Berger also has a cyber stalker who seems determined to sabotage her relationships with some of her employees as well.  The overall effect is to make Berger look less than competent, overwhelmed and not fully in control of her job.  Ladies, has this ever happened to you or someone you know?

Larsson died in 2004 and all of his books have been published posthumously.  But through his Millenium series, he has an uncanny knack for pinpointing the causes of modern societal decline.  He takes on the newspaper industry’s recent tendency to print lies uncritically, without examining the sources of leaks or their motives.  He lays out how shareholders and corporate CEO’s undermine their businesses by consuming profits at the expense of their core functions.  And he begins to get a grip on the violation of civil rights by his nation’s security apparatus.  It’s in this last area that we get an ironic taste of how far America has fallen since these books were written.  Larsson still looks to the United States as the gold standard in protecting an individual’s Constitutional rights against state abuse and he postulates that Lisbeth’s case would result in Congressional hearings here in the good ol’ US of A.  I guess he hadn’t yet heard of Jose Padilla.  It’s very difficult to sympathize with a suspected terrorist and yet, through Lisbeth’s case, it’s very easy to see how perceptions can be twisted and how an innocent person can be locked away for life if “state security” is invoked.

Hornet’s Nest ties up loose ends for the trilogy and could be seen as the author’s attempt at a satisfying conclusion.  The truth is stranger than fiction.  Larsson had almost completed a fourth book and had outlined the plots of several others when he died unexpectedly of a major heart attack at the age of 50.  The NYTimes profiled the struggle over his estate.  He died without a will and his family is battling with his long time companion, Eva Gabrielsson, over the rights to his books.  Gabrielsson says she didn’t write the books but suggests very strongly that she had significant influence over them.  Having read all three, I believe her.  It’s very difficult for me to believe that any man, even one as peculiarly sensitive and insightful as Larsson, could have this intimate a knowledge of what it’s like to be female in the modern and corporate world.  Gabrielsson says she’s not interested in the money so much as creative control.   Larsson’s father and brother got just about everything according to Swedish law but Gabrielsson has the hard drive from Larsson’s computer with the remaining novels on it.  The resolution of this battle of wills could be just as interesting as one of Larsson’s novels.

In Hornet’s Nest, Larsson portrays women who won’t back down, who learn how to protect themselves, don’t care what men think of them and have the courage to tell the world how incredibly annoyed they are about the whole state of affairs.  Go, Eva!

Highly Recommended.