“It was reassuring. You could tell by holding the book in your hands that there were many pages to go, many adventures to share” – critic Roger Ebert on the comforting bulkiness of J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
And so the English translation of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest brings Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published Millennium trilogy to its close. I turned the last page of this book feeling deep satisfaction as well as melancholy, the latter emotion compounded by the knowledge that there will be no more sequels (Larsson died of a heart attack shortly after completing the three manuscripts, totaling nearly 2,000 pages) – unless, of course, it turns out that the publishers have been withholding information from us. (Doubtful but fingers crossed!)
An epic series usually follows a trajectory that leads from the small picture to the large; the first book tends to be relatively intimate, establishing the key characters and their immediate setting, and then, as the series proceeds, a fuller, grander canvas unfolds. (Which first-time reader, encountering Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday celebrations in the cosy Shire, can possibly anticipate Sauron’s forbidding wasteland of Mordor, much less the vast mythological landscape of The Silmarillion?) This is how the Millennium trilogy played out. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, began as a standard-issue thriller, centering on the investigation of a 40-year-old murder, but soon journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his research-assistant Lisbeth Salander (a.k.a. the girl with the dragon tattoo) discovered that this was a fragment of a much larger puzzle involving ritualistic killings and a trend of violence towards helpless women immigrants. The darker undercurrents of life in contemporary Sweden stood to be uncovered, including corruption and sleaze in big corporations, and the limp-wristed collusion of financial journalists.
The sullen, anti-social but frighteningly efficient Salander was the most interesting character in this novel, but her back-story really took centrestage in the second book The Girl who Played With Fire, which was even more ambitious in its cast of characters and range of subjects – the story involved an extensive exposé of the Swedish sex-trafficking industry, the murder of the enterprising young writer who was to carry it out, and the revelation of a connection with Salander’s early life. The girl who played with fire was now officially in the eye of the storm.
The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest picks up at exactly the point where its predecessor dramatically ended, with Salander, a bullet lodged in her head, admitted in the critical care unit of a hospital. Though soon out of danger, she is still a suspect in three murders and a high-profile trial awaits. Meanwhile, Blomkvist – who isn’t allowed to meet her in hospital – must work against time to unearth the details of a three-decade-long cover-up by an organisation within the innermost circle of the Swedish secret police. (Hence the book’s clever title, which evokes the closed hives of secret agents.) Other parallel strands involve the activities of an aged former “spook” named Gullberg, the increasingly hectic professional life of Blomkvist’s best friend and former Millennium editor Erika Berger as she tries to cope with a new job as editor-in-chief at a daily newspaper, and the independent investigations conducted by authorities who are partly sympathetic to Salander.
Larsson’s novels are very detailed and full of information about the workings of, for example, magazine and newspaper journalism, the police force and big business (to this list, we can now add the morally ambiguous world of spies, their activities so shadowy that they are often hidden even from the upper echelons of government). In fact, it’s possible to offer the mild criticism that they are too detailed, sometimes to the extent of being flabby. Some of this probably has to do with the circumstances of their publication: if Larsson had lived to discuss them with his editor, I think some of the deadwood would have been eliminated. Much as I enjoyed the first two books, more than once I got the impression that he had written the manuscripts mainly for his own pleasure (the self-indulgence does work in places, such as the cameo appearance in the second book of the real-life Swedish boxer Paolo Roberto), not really worrying about tightening them for eventual publication; and that his publishers, excited by their potential, had rushed them into production and translation after his death. I thought the second book in particular could comfortably have lost eighty or so pages.
Happily, The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is much more focused than its immediate predecessor, and a genuine page-turner all the way through. After establishing the background in the initial chapters, it kicks into maximum gear once Blomkvist (somewhat implausibly) manages to smuggle in a hand-held computer – along with Internet access – to the incarcerated Salander (who, as we already know, is an expert hacker with an army of anonymous online contacts). This is where the book really delivers: once Salander has that computer, she is as omnipotent as Salman Khan in Wanted. There’s nothing she can’t achieve, and a point arrives, around three-fourths of the way through this 600-page novel, when the reader realises with a warm flush of excitement that everything is going to turn out all right, that the bad guys are going to get their comeuppance and that we’ll have the satisfaction of watching them squirm.
You might think that such an epiphany would be detrimental to the effect of a thriller, but this isn’t the case here: the suspense in this book isn’t so much a matter of what will happen but how it will unfold. Besides, with a character as moody and anti-social as Salander, you can be sure that things will never be allowed to get too comfortable or happy. She remains an enormously compelling protagonist even when she spends much of the book physically immobile, and it’s a pity that we won’t get to see the further twists in her complex relationship with Blomkvist. On the other hand, perhaps the legacy of the Millennium books will lie in their not being extended into an endless, ultimately compromised series. Three novels usually aren't enough to secure an author's place in genre-fiction history, but this is what Larsson has achieved, years after his passing.
[An earlier post on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Swedish crime fiction here]