The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by Stieg Larsson
Reviewed by Erin Aubry Kaplan
True to its title, this last installment of Swedish author Stieg Larsson's popular trilogy of spy thrillers has the same forces stirred up in the first two books doing grand, final battle, not just for the fate of its female protagonist but for the soul of justice itself. It's high drama full of even loftier metaphors, but Larsson -- who died in 2004 soon after delivering the manuscripts for the trilogy -- was adept at the genre, and Hornet is no exception: taut, detailed and hardboiled in the best detective-fiction tradition. He also radically feminized that tradition by centering the political stakes and intrigue in this series around the empowerment and equal treatment of women. Those who have read Larsson are used to the equation, which he presented with typical matter-of-factness, but it still feels revolutionary. At least on this side of the Atlantic.
Not surprisingly, the culminating story spins a very tangled web. Lisbeth Salander, the traumatized but selfpossessed computer hacker first introduced as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and next as The Girl Who Played With Fire, opens Hornet with a jolt. Fighting for her life after a violent encounter with her nemeses, she has been rushed to a hospital in Goteborg. Her survival is the beginning of her troubles. Already suspected of murder, she is now accused of more crimes and finds herself once again at the mercy of powerful but clandestine forces bent on silencing her for good, allegedly in the name of Swedish national security. But Lisbeth has a persistent ally in Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who becomes increasingly convinced that her enemies are actually enemies of the civil liberties guaranteed by the state, yet whose operations are sanctioned -- and deliberately unmonitored -- by the state.
This kind of democratic doublethink is familiar to Americans, something we tend to view with an almost ingrained cynicism. Not Larsson. A social activist and former journalist, he wrote with a clear moral position that can be deadly in a novel. Here it's a superheated core that lights the story from beginning to end and drives the characters, good and otherwise, to stay several steps ahead of each other as they hurtle toward a day of reckoning in court (where the pivotal lawyer is a woman, of course). Heady stuff, but also great fun.
There are a few drawbacks. As the series draws to a close and its implications grow more epic, Hornet tends at moments toward preachiness: "This story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies," Mikael declares late in the book. "It's about violence against women, and the men who enable it." True, but not something that needs spelling out. And the romantic asides feel somewhat perfunctory. Larsson's women are everyday heroines of great resourcefulness, but with the exception of Lisbeth, whose psychological state is a major plot point, they're underdrawn. Still, that's a small price to pay for the absorbing action and counter-action that Larsson constructed in perfect proportion, like the master architect he was. Fortunately for his readers, he was an architect with a heart.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a freelance writer and contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times opinion page.