Of all the unlikely triumphs of Lisbeth Salander, the most gratifying is her victory over Stieg Larsson. Salander, a combination of Lara Croft, Ayn Rand, and Catherine MacKinnon, is the hero and driving force of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy— The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and the final volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Over the course of the trilogy, she faces down corrupt policemen, sadomasochistic lawyers, corrupt businessmen, organized crime bosses, corrupt bureaucrats, Nazi sympathizers, corrupt doctors, lazy journalists, and murderous Aryan giants with superhuman strength who are impervious to pain. And yet she still must overcome sentences like these: "She opened her eyes to two narrow slits and stared at him for many long seconds. Her eyes were unfocused. Then he heard her mutter in such a low voice that he could only with difficulty catch the words."
OK, so maybe it loses a little in the translation, though seconds last just as long in Swedish as they do in English, and it's hard to stare unfocused at someone in any language. The sentence above comes from the final page of the second in the trilogy, but there is plenty of stilted prose and pointless digression in his latest volume. After a workout, one character goes home to eat "a late but nutritious dinner." Another character is "six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds, which meant that he was thin and wiry." There are long disquisitions on Swedish politics (not to worry, it comes with endnotes) and journalistic ethics, two subjects of only limited interest even to Swedish journalists.
Still—bad writing is hardly a barrier to success in this genre. A good plot can run right over pages and pages of bad writing. And if there is a bad plot, or an incomprehensible one, great writing can always go around it. By these standards, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a failure. No one should read this book for its plot or its prose. About the only thing it has going for it, and this is saying something, is Lisbeth Salander: a 4-foot-11 man-hating computer genius who fights dirty both online (hacking e-mail accounts, installing viruses) and off (nail guns, tasers to the crotch).
In the previous book, Salander and her frenemy, the journalist Michael Blomkvist, were on the trail of a sex-trafficking ring. In one of those coincidences that occur regularly in crime fiction, their pursuit also led them to Salander's estranged father, Alexander Zalachenko. Zalachenko is a former Soviet spy who defected to Sweden so that he could be free to deal drugs, rape women, and personify evil. He frequently abused Salander's mother, and after one especially savage beating, the 12-year-old Salander tried to kill him by throwing gasoline and a match into his car (hence the previous volume's title).
And here's where the story turns from a stirring family saga into a tale of deceit and corruption at the highest levels of the Swedish government. (If there is corruption, it is always at the highest levels.) While Zalachenko went unpunished, Salander was sent to a mental institution, where she was abused. After she wins her release, one of her government-appointed guardians also abuses her. (His comeuppance came in the first book, when Salander tattooed "I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist" across his belly.) As The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest opens, both Salander and Zalachenko are in the hospital, their reunion in the final pages of the previous book having not gone well: He shot her three times, and she took an axe to Dad's forehead.
The bad guys in the government want to lock up Salander for good this time. She knows too much. Salander's "friends" on the outside, her crowd of online hackers and Blomkvist, can get her any information she wants and publish it. Salander is torn: She wants revenge against the government officials who wronged her, in particular the doctor who had her institutionalized. But she doesn't want anyone's help, and she's not interested in saving Swedish democracy from itself (that's Blomkvist's project). "I just want the government to leave me alone," she says. The doctor who removed the bullet from her brain—he's the good doctor in the story—tries to befriend her but is rebuffed. Frustrated with her "inability to relate to social conventions," he speculates that she has Asperger's.
Before long the plot is overrun with police officers, reporters, doctors, lawyers, private-security consultants, and important government officials. The prime minister himself makes a couple cameos. One way to tell the good guys from the bad guys is their attitudes about sex. (How Swedish!) The bad guys, most of whom work for the Swedish secret police, abuse women, download child pornography, and tell jokes about lesbians. The good guys, most of whom work for Millennium magazine (think of it as a Swedish version of Mother Jones), have mutually satisfying, enlightened sex with sources and colleagues. When a new character arrives, it's usually wise to withhold judgment until he or she hops into bed. Inspector Monica Figuerola, for example, is immediately suspect—she's a police officer, after all—until we learn that she and a neighbor "had also had sex as friends." She's good. Lest there be any doubt, she later beds Blomkvist himself ("Are you going to come quietly," she asks, "or do I have to handcuff you?").
But it's foolish to examine any thriller's plot too closely. (SPOILER ALERT: Despite myself, over the next few paragraphs I will be so foolish.) The larger problem with the drama of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is that it fails on its own terms: The villains are simply not equal to the task before them. Cardboard characters and laughable dialogue can be forgiven if the contest, however ludicrous, generates suspense—which at least requires well-matched antagonists. In The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the bad guys are a bunch of unimaginative and sickly bureaucrats; the guy running the operation against Salander is a retiree on dialysis. A key element of the plan involves stealing back a report from Blomkvist that details Salander's mistreatment at the hands of the government. Do they not realize how easy it is these days to copy and save stuff? Have they never heard of Google Docs?
The contrast with the good guys couldn't be more stark. When he's not typing away on his iBook or having sex, Blomkvist manages to come up with many ingenious plans to foil the bad guys. The way he arranges for Salander to be able to send e-mail from her closely guarded hospital room, for example, is both clever and plausible. On the whole, however, Blomkvist is a bore. The original title of the first book in the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is "Men Who Hate Women," and Blomkvist is the one who articulates the theme in this book. "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it," Blomkvist says. After 514 pages about spies and secret government agencies, it's hard not to resent Blomkvist's declaration.
Part of Salander's appeal is that she, too, sees Blomkvist as a blowhard—a "naïve do-gooder," she calls him—and she vents her impatience with everyone and everything. (She has a T-shirt that reads, "I Am Annoyed.") She's a stand-in for the reader: She just wants this whole ridiculous story to be over already. In the book's climactic courtroom scene, she at first refuses to testify. "I do not intend to spend one more minute of my time on this trial," she says, thereby prolonging it. Every Larsson character is either good or bad, and Salander is no exception, but she's also something else: She's complicated. Unlike every other Larsson character, Salander faces genuine dilemmas. It's not always clear what she should do.
The main problem with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is that it doesn't have enoughSalander. More so than in the last two books, Blomkvist is the main character. The best part of any Larsson book is watching Salander interact with more normal humans, and it's hard for her to socialize (asocialize?) when she spends about 90 percent of the book in either a hospital room or jail cell. When she does finally venture into the wider world, in the book's final pages, the results are satisfying. She travels to Gibraltar and Paris, gets drunk, and has sex with a married German businessman she meets in a bar. Her pickup line is a classic: "I'm from Sweden," she says. "I'm feeling an irresistible urge to have sex."
Without delving too far into the question of whether fictional characters have minds of their own, I wonder what Salander would have made of her creator. (Though if Blomkvist is an "authorial sock puppet," we may already know.) I like to think she would have told him to cut this book by a couple hundred pages and to stop surrounding her with such pretentious windbags. Larsson was half done with a fourth volume when he died in 2004, and planned 10 books in total. Maybe now someone else can pick up Salander's story. Freed from the constraints of Stieg Larsson's prose, maybe Lisbeth Salander can leave behind those tiresome Swedish Social Democrats and come to America. She'd fit right in with the Tea Party crowd.