Monday, 12 October 2009

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest”, Stieg Larsson

Since bringing it home from the bookstore a couple of days before its official release it took quite a lot of restraint to not start reading "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" immediately. It's testament to the phenomenon that Stieg Larsson has become and the power of his writing that this is a consideration at all - countless other authors are destined to languish for far too long on the bookshelf, waiting attention, for me this was never likely to be the case with this, the final Larsson book.

Let's get the negatives out of the way to start with. I had thought about doing a complete run through of the trilogy, revisiting the first two works before launching into "Hornets' Nest", and on reflection I should have done. In no way is this a standalone book, indeed without a detailed awareness of what happened in "The Girl Who Played with Fire" it probably makes no sense whatsoever. Compounding this, the way the reader is flung into the events immediately following the end of previous book jars, and it takes the first hundred or so pages to get your bearings and reset yourself in Larsson's universe. The effect of this is initially disconcerting, and I found myself wondering if somehow this might end up as a disappointment. Perseverance is however rewarded, and ultimately this is revealed as every bit as engrossing a tale as his previous works.

Larsson has long challenged easy categorisation, and this is much more a political thriller than crime novel. At its heart is the existence of "The Section", a counterespionage element of Swedish intelligence who, more than most, have been captured by the wilderness of mirrors making up the intelligence community. The namechecking of the now infamous CIA spycatcher, James Jesus Angleton shows how they have come to see secrecy as an end in itself that they immerse themselves in and subvert ordinary legality to what is seen as being of pre-eminent importance. Even these spies however carry with them a sense of world weariness and an awareness that society has passed them by. As reluctant Section Chief Wadensjoo opines:

"There's a new realpolitik in Europe since the Soviet Union collapsed. Our work is less and less about identifying spies. It's about terrorism, and evaluating the political suitability of individuals in sensitive positions." (p.105)

The Section may be at the heart of the crimes perpetrated in the novel, and in their moral relativism are absolutely the opposite to everything the idealistic crusading journalists on Millennium stand for, but somehow one can't help thinking that they too are victims, this time of circumstances largely of their own making. Their ultimate downfall, while satisfying, pales alongside the much more personal story acted out by Lisbeth Salander.

The character of Salander here is more accessible. Over the course of the novel she is much less the Nikita / Petra Reuter like machine, and much more the vulnerable character who has to fall back on her wits and what she's best at to survive. This is a much more satisfying and real existence, and perhaps parallels the psychological journey portrayed in the book, transforming her from the mentally unstable ward of the Swedish state to more fully fledged citizen.

Of the other key characters, they all enjoy the sort of complex and very Swedish relationships that have made Larsson's universe so interesting to read. They're all flawed, but engagingly so, from Blomkvist's endless romantic entanglements to Berger's inability to bring a traditional newsroom to heel, they all build a set of subplots rich in detail and fascinating to read.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a sprawling ambitious narrative that gives the lie to the notion, peddled to death by Dan Brown, that to be a fast paced novel it has to take place over 24 hours acted out by characters who never sleep. Here the story takes place over 8 months from April to December, with a rhythm that ebbs and flows in intensity towards the dramatic courtroom denouement, and throughout shows characters that throughout are thoroughly human in their frailties. In contrast to the somewhat disorienting opening, the signature Larsson dramatic coda brings with it a welcome sense of closure, which makes the narrative ultimately work.

Chatting to the bookstore owner while buying this, we concluded that there were mixed feelings about it coming out. Yes it's enormously looked forward to, but there's a tinge of regret, because we know it's the last of these books that we will read. Without wishing to delve into mawkish sentimentality there is a sadness to reading the last pages, because we will never get to find out what Larsson had mapped out for the rest of his 10 volume series.

"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest" is a brilliant book; I still can't quite believe it's all over.


  1. What a fantastic and perceptive review! I love your description of those world-weary spies, that puts the finger right on it. And your words about Lisbeth's development ring very true, also.

    I loved this trilogy and like you and many others, am so sad that it is all over, prematurely. The first three books together make up a triptych which I am sure, from the hints and themes begun at various stages in all three, were going to continue over the full series of ten novels.

    Thanks for the really fascinating review, which I enjoyed reading so much (being fresh from closing the final page myself).

  2. PS hope this is OK but I have set up your blog to feed into the FF crime & mystery fiction group

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful and enjoyable review! You are absolutely right about how said it is that this is the last of the series. Wonder what the next one might have been like....

  4. Thanks Maxine and Margot for the comments - glad you enjoyed the review.

    No problems at all re feeding into the FriendFeed group - although I do hope I don't drive regular readers there mad by cluttering things up when I write about something other than crime fiction!

  5. Oh, Maxine took the words out of my mind. Perceptive it is, and to add my own feeling it is amazing that anyone can make conspiracy as edible as that.