Title: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest
Publisher: Maclehose Press 
Length: 599 pages
Setting: Sweden, present day
Genre: Journalistic/legal thriller
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating: 5/5
One-liner: Slow to start but gripping, complex and demanding to be thought about and pondered long after the reading is done .
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
As the book opens Lisbeth Salander, subject of a nation-wide manhunt on suspicion of three murders, has been shot several times, once in the head, and is on her way by helicopter to hospital. Alexander Zalachenko, her father and a former Russian agent being protected by members of the Swedish police, has been hit in the face with an axe by Lisbeth and is on his way to the same hospital. Over the coming days both have their injuries treated while the bureaucrats and police officers who have protected Zalachenko for many years re-group to decide what action to take to ensure their activities are not uncovered. At the same time investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his colleagues at Millennium magazine start to piece together the evidence that will demonstrate what crimes have been committed and by whom.
First, let me get the flaws out of the way.
As was the case with the first two books in this series Hornets’ Nest would have benefited from tighter editing: it isn’t really a 600 page story. Sometimes excruciating details are provided about an eclectic collection of subjects (I have learned more than I ever wanted to about the hierarchy of the Swedish Police for example) and then other threads are left almost bare (as if Larsson had forgotten them in his rush to the end). Also, as he did in the first book, Larsson periodically stepped out of the role of storyteller and became a journalist preparing an in-depth Sunday feature with several diatribes and some passages that belonged in a lecture rather than a thriller. This failure to follow the ‘show don’t tell’ rule is the most hated of my personal pet peeves and can be the thing that makes me stop reading. But I have learned that the details and the lecturing are as much a part of Larsson’s work as Lisbeth and his other fabulous characters and I think, perhaps, they are the necessary flip side of the thing that makes him such a good yarn-spinner: his passion.
It’s clearer than ever in this book that Larsson aimed to do more than tell a thrilling story. Earlier this year another journalist turned fiction writer, Matt Rees, blogged that writing his fictional tales set in Palestine allowed him to be far more truthful about the realities there than he could ever have been in his journalism and I wonder if Larsson didn’t experience this same phenomenon. He demonstrates the myriad ways women are mistreated by men throughout the book and I suspect much of this is based on things he saw as a journalist. Although it is Lisbeth who, as an almost allegorical character, experiences the worst of treatments over many years by men who abuse their physical and political power there are many other stories intertwined here. For example Erika Berger is stalked by someone she barely knows and treated abysmally on top of it, women are trafficked and treated as though no more than goods by Zalachenko and his son and there’s even a reminder of the trauma caused to Harriet Vanger which, in a way, started the entire series off. But Larsson doesn’t just depict a black and white world where all the men are awful and all women victims. The book is brimming with positive female characters who can look after themselves as well as many men who go out of their way to right the wrongs they have seen done around them.
Lisbeth plays a less active role in this book than in any of the others which could have disappointed me but didn’t. She features as a motivating force for much of the action and starts to display glimpses of a slowly healing psyche after all the abuse she has suffered. In addition there are many other compelling characters to become intrigued by. Erika features in a startling minor thread and is more well-rounded in this novel and there are great new characters to meet such as Mikael’s sister Annika who becomes Lisbeth’s lawyer. Mikael himself is probably his most engaging in this book and certainly his most mature as he develops sensitive professional and personal relationships with the police who must investigate the Zalachenko affair. Even the bad guys are well-drawn and reading about how they were drawn into the conspiracy to protect Zalachenko and in so doing cause deep harm to Lisbeth and others is quite fascinating.
Although all three novels have featured the Millennium magazine it was in this book that I was really struck by Larsson’s at times old-fashioned depiction of the role investigative journalism and plays in our world. I suppose being a journalist himself he was biased but it really does hit home how much we need a functional fourth estate and what trouble us little folk might be in if they disappear as would seem likely given the dire predictions for mainstream media.
In the end The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest is a complex, unpredictable book that wears its liberal heart proudly on its sleeve. I don’t imagine you could make much sense of it without having read the first two in the series and I would strongly recommend that if you’re going to read them at all (and you really, really should) then you must, as with all the very best stories, start at the beginning.
I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo before I started this blog but you can read what I thought about The Girl Who Played With Fire
And if you haven’t had quite enough try Understanding Swedish society through Stieg Larsson’s popular fiction. Is Stieg Larsson the 21st Century Charles Dickens?