The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a competent, albeit problematic, conclusion to the Millenium series, written by the Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. The book brings together the trilogy’s best features, with a narrative that is socially engaged and especially concerned with violence committed against women, alongside many of its worst flaws, such as useless plotlines and dialogues full of exposition.
The story begins immediately after the end of the previous book, with the protagonist Lisbeth Salander being taken to the hospital after her encounter with the criminal Alexander Zalachenko, a Russian spy who sought political asylum in Sweden. Since Mikael Blomkvist is threatening to publish Zalachenko’s story, some SÄPO officials, from the Swedish Security Service, realize the danger that their institution is in and devise a plan to control the situation.
In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Stieg Larsson abandons virtually all the elements of a detective story that defined the first book of the trilogy and makes the narrative borrow the elements of a spy thriller.
The change matches Larsson’s typical journalistic style, crafting a narrative that doesn’t hesitate in thoroughly analyzing, for example, the Sweden Security Service, revealing its bureaucratic procedures, its history after World War II, its various departments and its importance to its country.
Larsson is an author whose narratives are packed with detail. His narrator is not satisfied, for example, in simply stating that Lisbeth and her fellow hackers had no difficulty in tracing certain calls or invading a particular computer. The narrator makes a point of explaining in detail the methods they used, which ends up serving two purposes: it gives more realism to their actions, and makes the information work as an alert to the reader about the existence of some technologies, as can be observed in the following passage:
“But Trinity and Bob the Dog devoted the best part of a week to identifying and separating out Ekström’s mobile from the background noise of about 200,000 other mobile telephones within a kilometre of police headquarters. They used a technique called Random Frequency Tracking System. The technique was not uncommon. It had been developed by the U.S. National Security Agency, and was built into an unknown number of satellites that performed pinpoint monitoring of capitals around the world as well as flashpoints of special interest.”
The book’s narrative is initially divided. One thread follows the investigations surrounding the whereabouts of Ronald Niedermann, Zalachenko’s right-hand man, who, still on the run, begins to leave a trail of blood during his escape through Sweden. Another sees Mikael being chased by secret agents while trying to produce the material for his magazine. And a third focuses on Lisbeth, who is hospitalized in a room right next to her biggest enemy, and is trying to find a way to kill him unnoticed.
The hatred between Lisbeth and Zalachenko – the main point of suspense at the beginning of the novel – is well-developed: both characters often find themselves reflecting on how they could end their nemesis using the few resources they have at their disposal, ignoring the critical state of their health. At one point, for example, the spy struggles to walk slowly to the front of Salander’s room only to watch her for a few seconds, when, sweaty and without energy, he has to return to his own room to rest. The tension in the scene is palpable: the reader understands that, if even unbearable pain is incapable of stopping them, a confrontation is inevitable.
Larsson also rightly introduces the point of view of the SÄPO agents early in the book, taking special care to not vilify the whole Secret Service, making the villains be part of a special section within SÄPO, known only to its members and simply referred to as “Section”. The huge chapter in which they reflect on their stories and motivations is central to the narrative because it is they and not Zalachenko and Niedermann the true antagonists in the book. In addition, following the point of view of the agent Gullberg is essential to make the first turning point in the story surprising and shocking: the author contrasts the cold and reflective nature of the character with the violence of his actions.
In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander was a character that acted as judge, jury and executioner, punishing those who threatened and hurt women. Here Larsson brings this idea to the next stage, making the narrative follow the whole investigation process that intends to punish the characters who mistreated Salander her entire life and make them finally face justice.
There are no shades of gray in the characters. Mikael Blomkvist, for example, doesn’t have any flaw whatsoever; he is upright to the extreme and the representation of the utopian journalist. The SÄPO agents are psychopaths who seem to know only to lie, manipulate others and solve their problems by murdering people. Larsson separates the characters into three easily identifiable groups: the good, the bad and the stupid – the former being rewarded, while the other two are punished severely.
The trial in the climax is emblematic. Larsson wants to make the legal system compensate Lisbeth for all the maltreatment she has received. The trial is completely over the top: it could be very well be a Phoenix Wright case, as it is full of surprise evidences, sudden plot twists and witnesses being arrested.
In addition, Larsson forms a group of good characters that is not predominantly male, putting Mikael’s sister – a women’s rights attorney – to defend Lisbeth in court, a female police officer to find out Niedermann’s whereabouts and a female SÄPO agent to investigate the institution itself. The author puts all female characters on the side of the good guys, which, although not subtle, is consistent with the theme of the story.
Larsson, however, fails to justify the constant presence of some characters. The whole plot involving Mikael’s colleague, Erika Berger, is the worst offender. After Erika leaves the Millenium magazine and finds a job in one of the great newspapers in Sweden, she starts to receive several emails from an anonymous source containing sexual montages of her, as well as direct attacks calling her a “bitch”. Larsson uses this narrative thread to expose the issue of workplace harassment, discussing the subject in depth and never forgetting to point out that the security Erika hires to address the issue is a privilege resulting from her comfortable financial position – revealing a terrifying perspective on what happens to those who do not have the same amount of money. Therefore, it is undoubtedly a thematically relevant plotline. However, because it is completely isolated from the main story, it becomes inconsequential and superfluous: cutting off this section would not impact Lisbeth’s story in any minor way.
Larsson has a serious problem in making some of his social criticisms important narrative-wise. He spends a good time complaining about various spheres of Swedish society – such as the real estate market – without bothering to connect these points with the main story. He ends up filling his book with an unnecessary fat, with pages and pages discussing topics that in no way influence Lisbeth’s journey:
“No, but what is new is that the construction industry is a couple of light-years ahead of all other Swedish industries when it comes to competition and efficiency. If Volvo built cars the same way, the latest model would cost about one, maybe even two million kronor. For most of industry, cutting prices is the constant challenge. For the construction industry it’s the opposite. The price per square metre keeps going up. The state subsidizes the cost with taxpayers’ money just so that the prices aren’t prohibitive.”
This passage also makes perfectly visible the degree of exposition that usually plagues the dialogues in the book. Larsson seems to care little about subtlety: what he wants it the reader to understand the subject he is criticizing. However, on several occasions such exposition is not even contextualized, resulting in highly artificial dialogues. At one point, for example, the author has one policeman explain to another how their own legal system works: “This could lead to a constitutional crisis. In the United States you can cross-examine members of the government in a normal court of law. In Sweden you have to do it through a constitutional committee.”
The author also is guilty of repetition. There is, for example, a scene in which Zalachenko receives visits in the hospital, with an omniscient narrator describing the events. In the next chapter, the villain himself reflects on the same visits he received, repeating everything without any new input.
Police stupidity, so abundant in the previous book, is still present here. So, it’s not surprising that when Detectives Bublanski and Sonja discuss in detail Zalachenko’s involvement with the Swedish Secret Service, reflect that someone must be hindering the investigation behind the scenes, but cannot imagine who that person may be.
Another problem in the book is the narration’s newfound appreciation for food, since it often interrupts the action to describe the characters eating in detail: “She poured black coffee into a paper cup and ate a lettuce and cheese baguette. Then she peeled an orange and sucked each segment to extinction.”
Thematically, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest closes the trilogy perfectly. That doesn’t mean, however, that the book doesn’t incur into several mistakes similar to those seen in The Girl Who Played with Fire, and thus remaining light years behind the book that started the series. Nevertheless, with the Millenium trilogy, Stieg Larsson constructed a series of novels, albeit with their good share of problems, very relevant not only to Swedish society but also to the rest of the world.
May 10, 2019.
Review originally published in Portuguese on November 25, 2016.
Published May 23rd 2010 by Knopf