Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Steig Larsson

And so we come to the end of this "Millenium Trilogy," the oddest international publishing sensation of the last few years. It started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I hated, continued with The Girl Who Played With Fire, which I hated fractionally less, and finally resolves with this most recent entry. Yes, I read it. Yes, I felt like I was buying the literary equivalent of Twinkies when I picked it up. I read it for the sake of completeness, because if I'm going to hate on it, I should at least get the full story.

Did I hate it? No, actually, I didn't. But I still don't get why this is so damn popular.

Word on the Internet has it that Larsson considered this a single novel, and it was his publishers who broke it into three separate books. Larsson's name for it was "Men Who Hate Women," which has the advantage of being accurate at least. Viewed as a single work, it is clear that the story is really about Lisabeth Salander and how an unconventional woman systematically runs afoul of a conformist society. Part of the "problem" is that she is a woman, and in Larsson's world, there is an awful lot of violent misogyny. However, it isn't clear that Salander's story would be any different if she were a man: after all, there is a lot of violence generally throughout these books, and while I felt there was a special nastiness in the treatment of women, pretty much everybody gets beat up one way or another.

In Dragon Tattoo, Salander is a secondary--and probably more like a tertiary--character. She assists Mikael Blomkvist solve a mystery using her mysteriously excellent computer skills. Oh, she's a hacker? And that's how she gets personal information on suspects? Quelle suprise. Except not.

In Played with Fire, we learn that Salander is the off-spring of a violent criminal who is protected by the Swedish government because he defected from the USSR, and was considered to be a valuable source of counter-espionage. So whenever his violent and criminal dealings became public, someone from a super-secret branch of government would come and cover it all up. One of the things he did with horrible frequency was to show up and beat Salander's mother--the final time so badly as to cause permanent brain damage. Salander couldn't get anyone to help them, so she tried to kill her father with a home-made Molotov cocktail. She was about 12 at the time.

Via the hush-hush machinations of the super-secret spy department, Salander was declared mentally ill and locked up in an asylum where she may have been sexually abused. She was eventually released, but placed under guardianship in order to keep her from revealing anything about the super secret spy club. Even after the fall of the USSR, the spies couldn't allow her to say anything that might jeopardize their organization, so when her (nice) guardian had to retire for medical reasons, she was placed under the care of a Spy Doctor, who did sexually abuse her.

Hornet's Nest
picks up where Played with Fire ends, after Salander has attempted to kill her father before he kills her. Both of them end up surprisingly not dead, and placed in hospital rooms very close to each other. Salander remains the primary suspect in multiple murders and is kept from her computers, but oddly isn't actually guarded in any way for quite some time. This raises the odd plot device where her father tries to finish her off while the night shift nurses aren't watching. As an American, I can only marvel at the trusting nature of Swedish law enforcement depicted here. They don't even seem to be afraid that she might escape.

Once she is safely locked into her hospital room, Larssen mostly just leaves her there while the book follows an ungodly number of different groups of people investigating the mayhem that trailed in Salander's wake. At least two different groups of police officers, the super secret spies, the prosecuting attorney's office, Blomkvist and I don't even know who all else are all running around trying to eavesdrop on each others' conversations to find out who knows what about what really happened. I actually found this the most enjoyable part of the books--people began to act the way normal people act, with a whole lot less of the gratuitous hyper-violence of the first two books.

Not that the violence has completely disappeared. No, there is the sickening story of illegal Russian immigrant women who are simply locked in a room and left to starve to death, and there is the continuing saga of the thugs of the motorcycle club who do a lot of dirty work for whoever will pay them. But there is so much less of it, and hardly any of the extended sequences that should have left everybody dead! It's almost refreshing.

I'm pretty sure no one will be surprised to find that Salander is vindicated by the end. There is some slimy trial work in which the head of the asylum where Salander was imprisoned tries to get her re-committed: he's also in the pay of the Super Secret Spies. He attempts to smear her with her claim that she was abused by her guardian--since that obviously couldn't have happened. So Salander's attorney gets to show the video Salander made of the last attack--one that was so violent, and lasted so long, that Salander passed out during it. Thank god the judge is sickened by it--given the kind of men who live in Larssen's Sweden, he might have thought that was perfectly normal behavior.

There is an entire subplot about Erika Berger that seemed unnecessary to me. The editor of Millenium, and Blomkvist's life-long "friend with benefits," Berger is offered the position of editor at a large and prestigious newspaper. She takes the job, and of course experiences push back from the Old Boys (there are no girls at all?)--not because she's new of course, but because she's a woman. While she's getting accustomed to her new job, over at Millenium somebody's doing an investigative piece on why toilets cost so much in Stockholm. Turns out that Erika's new boss is grossly overpricing his imported toilets, so that's why real estate is so expensive.

Yeah, I didn't follow it entirely either.

Anyway, Erika's friends at Millenium show her the piece so she's not blind-sided. She steals the piece to publish in her newspaper, confronts her boss who won't roll over for her high-minded ideals, so she quits and goes back to Millenium. And everybody lives happily ever after. Blomkvist gets a new girlfriend--a weight-lifting Amazon who just can't get enough of him. Salander goes back to her old girlfriend; Erika is still married to her husband and still sleeps with Blomkvist when he doesn't have a girlfriend. The super secret spy network is dragged into the light, and Millenium finds something to fill the space other than expensive toilets. And the people of Stockholm are once again safe.

So, now I've read the whole thing, and I have to say I don't know why this has been such a break-out hit. I mean, of all the books published in the last three years, why is this the series that everybody is reading? You see these books plastered all over airports and book stores and even grocery check-out lines, and I just don't understand the global passion for these books.

So, I don't recommend these at all, and if you know anybody who wants to know if they are worth reading, send them over here and I'll tell them how they end. After all, life is too short to read worthless books.