The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
By Stieg Larsson
Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Viking Canada, 602 pages, $32
Talk about kicking a hornet's nest.
By now, the story behind the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is well-known. A Swedish journalist known for his writing on antidemocratic and Nazi organizations, Larsson wrote three novels but died in 2004 before their publication.
The novels introduced readers to crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his sometime sleuthing partner, antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander.
The series has been a runaway success, selling more than 27 million copies in 40 countries Swedish films have been made of each, the first of which premiered in North America this year, and a Hollywood adaptation is expected in 2012.
To top it off, the late author's royalties -- worth at least US$15 million -- are the subject of a bitter dispute between his partner of 32 years and his family. The legal drama unfolding in the absence of a will is reminiscent of the wrangling that takes place in the latest, and likely last, novel by Larsson to see print.
One might think, given he could not continue working on the novels as they were published, that there would be loose ends or a decline in quality. Fortunately for readers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the latest instalment holds up.
Picking right up from the end of Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest finds Lisbeth Salander in hospital suffering a gunshot wound in the head.
Blomkvist is left to deal with the police who want to know why Salander was shot -- and why she tried to put an axe into the head of an elderly Russian man.
That Russian, Zalachenko, is Salander's abusive father. But as a defector and key informant for Säpo, the Swedish security police, Zalachenko has effective legal immunity.
The authorities turned a blind eye to his abuse of his wife, which prompted Salander, at the age of 12, to firebomb his car.
Säpo -- or rather the secretive department within Säpo responsible for Zalachenko, the "Section for Special Analysis" -- hushed that up too and had Salander locked up in a mental institution for most of her adolescence.
What's intriguing about the series is the way Larsson shifts gears with each book.
Tattoo was a straight mystery, but Larsson was already exploring violence against and oppression of women in Sweden's liberated society. (The Swedish title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women -- a phrase that crops up once in each book.) He also set up the complicated relationship between Blomkvist and Salander.
In Fire, the story became a crime thriller. Salander's troubled past came back to bite her, and she was blamed for three murders ordered by Zalachenko.
Salander was soon on the run from police and seeking revenge on her father, even as Blomkvist tried to prove her innocence.
Now, in Hornet's Nest, Larsson presents a complex political thriller. He pulls in Säpo, the Section and their government taskmasters. Blomkvist is put under surveillance, crucial evidence for his planned exposé of Säpo is stolen, and his chief witness is found dead.
While Salander languishes in hospital under heavy guard, Blomkist learns the plot to destroy her life may reach all the way to the prime minister's office.
Larsson is careful to avoid sounding like a wild-eyed conspiracist -- not all the police and bureaucrats are baddies. Sometimes it's too careful, and a bit preachy, as various authorities declare their outrage. "If even a fraction of it is true, then we have a constitutional crisis on our hands," intones one Säpo chief when he learns of the Section's activities.
In fact, everyone but Blomkvist seems a bit slow on the uptake that the Swedish government could possibly get its hands dirty.
With headlines in the last five years of warrantless wiretaps in the U.S. or the deportation of Canadian Maher Arar, such things no longer seem as shocking as Larsson must have intended when he wrote the books.
Still, the plot rolls along with surprise murders, false trails of evidence, and extreme forms of damage control carried out by veterans of the Section, who realize if Zalachenko or Salander talk, their department will be destroyed.
And Salander's trial, which drags in all her psychological evaluations (faked to cover up institutionalized abuse), emerges as the critical field on which she and Blomkvist will strike back at the men who took control of her life. If they survive long enough to make it to court.
The trial is where familiarity with Sweden's legal tradition might help. There's a lot of surprise evidence and drastic twists that seem more dramatic (if satisfying) than strictly kosher.
Larsson planned seven more books, with the fourth volume already started before his death. It's unlikely it will see print, but that doesn't matter.
Hornet's Nest ties up the loose ends from the first two novels, and sees the action through to its thrilling conclusion.
David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor.