Although Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series was projected for ten books (like Maj Sjowall’s and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series) this, the third and final novel which he turned in to his publishers, actually completes a very coherent and self-contained trilogy, as the battle between Lisbeth Salander and her oppressors, powerful men in Swedish society, reaches a courtroom climax. In a sense, that climax defines this novel: where the first two books involved quite a bit of action (the first using the familiar story of finding the bad apple in the family in a new and interesting way, the second pitting Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist against her immediate tormentors) the default setting for this book is the conference room. Even the trial takes place around a table, rather than a Perry Mason-style courtroom setting, but I cannot think of a crime novel which proceeds from one meeting to another quite the way this one does—the Millenium magazine editorial staff; the villains in the secret section with Sapo, the state security police; the editorial staff and the board of SMP, the paper Ericka Berger leaves Millenium to edit; the police; the government, and so on.
The cumulative effect of all these meetings is an awful lot of exposition, not just of the plot but also of the history of the Swedish security state. That Larsson manages to make the suspense riveting in the face of such iintense backgrounding is a tribute to the story. But this will not suit the tastes of all readers, even those who have enjoyed the previous two volumes, and certainly it would not be a good place to begin. But if you’re a fan of conspiracy novels you’re likely to enjoy it, particularly as you see all these good stories which no one has (yet) bothered to fictionalise. It is a tribute to Larsson that he manages to make the story as gripping as he does, because what he does is manipulate groups, rather than people, through this plot. I compared him in an earlier essay (you can link to it here) to Alexandre Dumas, but here the model I have in mind is more like Richard North Patterson, or Michael Crichton, where the thriller plot revolves around an issue, and a lot of explication is required, and indeed, becomes part of the plot. Thus Salander herself can spend most of the book offstage, as it were, in a hospital bed from which she manipulates her hackers.
Oddly, what makes the novel work is the group of villains. The beauty of the plot is that he keeps them, seemingly, one step ahead of his heroes, even when we know that they cannot be. There still seems to be an inevitability that they, with their power and secrecy, will triumph. Thus when the most pompous and seld-assured of them is brought down to size, there is a palpable feeling of success. Perhaps the weakest part of the story is the assumption that there are enough decent, honest Swedes, not just in the police, but also in the government, in the secret police itself, and in the judiciary, to let the heroes triumph. This seems a strangely Swedish conceit: after all, Larsson’s balances his nobel journalist heroes with any number of lazy or corrupt ones. It seems about as likely as so many women finding Blomkvist irresisitible! Blomkvist’s fatal attraction to so many women is beginning to wear thin; although his new squeeze is interesting, one can see Larsson perhaps thinking ahead. I mistakenly felt a number of characters, and even settings, introduced in the second novel would appear again here. They don’t but one gets the sense that Larsson was playing the long game, for the ten-book set. For example, the character of Linder, from Milton Security, would seem primed for a bigger role the next time Millenium, or Berger, got into trouble.
Thus the lack of focus, the relatively smaller roles for Blomkvist and Salander are not that surprising. In a sort of coda that seems almost rushed at the end, Salander returns to action, but it is interesting that silence is always her strongest point, and her character can grow in depth while saying nothing. In fact, Salander reminds me that Sweden has recently produced a couple of key works in the modern vampire cycle, and she would not be out of place in either Frostbitten or Let The Right One In. Still, she creates an anomaly of sorts. As Blomkvist himself explains, ‘the story is not primarily about spies and secret agencies: its about violence against women and the men who enable it’. But that’s not quite true.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was called, in Swedish, Men Who Hate Women, and it was a novel about just that, including the men who hate Salander, who are counterpointed to the serial killer (who turns out to be carrying on a family tradition of abuse that includes both girls and boys). The parallel storylines, reflecting each other, are what makes this is the strongest of the series.The Girl Who Played With Fire is focused much more on Salander’s own revenges. But the Swedish title for this third volume was, as best I can translate it, Castles In The Air Exploded. To me this suggests the crumbling of the ideals of Swedish society, and the English title suggests striking against the stings of society, not just the males who abuse women. Thus Larsson’s title signifies the nature of this novel better than Blomkvist’s PC explanation—it is above all a conspiracy fiction, and it will be a conspiracy film when it is finally brought to the screen. I enjoyed it, but I felt a let-down after the first two, and that let-down wasn’t helped, as I said, by the action-filled coda, clever though it was. Still, when one plows through a 600 page novel, one does it for a reason. And now, with nowhere left for Millenium to go, we can only mourn, one last time, Larsson’s passing.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Maclehose Press/Quercus£18.99 ISBN 9781906694166
NOTE: THIS REVIEW APPEARED FIRST AT IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com