The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest Stieg Larsson

Maclehose Press, pp.599, 18.99

Just in case you hadn’t guessed after nearly 1,800 pages of the ‘Millennium’ trilogy, the late Stieg Larsson has his alter-ego hero Mikel Blomkvist spell it out.

Just in case you hadn’t guessed after nearly 1,800 pages of the ‘Millennium’ trilogy, the late Stieg Larsson has his alter-ego hero Mikel Blomkvist spell it out. ‘This story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies,’ he says. ‘It’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.’

Larsson’s three Millennium books, which feature adult reboots of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s characters Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, are slow-burners in the crime fiction charts. In almost every country in which they are published, sales for the first book are modest. When the second comes out things start picking up. By the time the third is released, publication is a big deal, and all three books usually bound back to the top of the bestseller lists. Anglophones are not about to buck the trend. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest should run Dan Brown close this Christmas.

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In that context what is surprising — or perhaps not — is that Larsson’s books get worse as he goes along. The first book, known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was excellent. It stood the locked-island murder mystery scenario on its head and introduced a truly unusual central character: Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, bisexual, post-punk genius computer hacker with a photographic memory but virtually no social skills. Dragon Tattoo contained the defining moment in the trilogy, when Salander tied up her abusive legal guardian and tattooed across his belly the phrase ‘I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist.’ Hurrah!

Now, having put Salander and Blomkvist through a fairly risible police procedure caper in the second book (The Girl who Played with Fire), Larsson completes the story by morphing it into an ultra-conventional spy thriller. We’ve come from genre-buster to posh potboiler in the space of two books.

This story takes up where the the previous one ended, with — spoiler alert! — Salander in hospital. She has survived being shot through the head and buried alive by her father and half-brother. However, because her father happened to be a KGB spy who defected to Sweden in the 1970s, Salander receives no sympathy from the state. Instead a rogue cell inside the Swedish security service is plotting to have her declared officially bonkers and carted off to the madhouse. Naturally, it is up to Blomkvist and a small harem of superchicks (a female lawyer, female security agent, female cop, female newspaper editor etc) to save the day by exposing this rotten conspiracy, which stretches to the top of Swedish government.

Getting to the point where the action can begin involves about 100 pages of slightly bewildering political backstory and a flood of new characters. But Larsson is a sharp enough writer to handle that. What really disappoints is the flatness and predictability of the characters, old and new. Most men are baddies who stay bad. And all the women are goodies who stay good.

Consequently, the men who have abused their power to hurt women all get their come-uppance. This occurs in a variety of cruel and unusual ways: one is shot in the face; another has his leg smashed with a police baton; a third has his feet nailed to the floor with a nailgun before being shot; a fourth is exposed in court as a paedophile.

Blomkvist, meanwhile, gets off scot-free. In fact, he gets to have healthy, no-strings, Swedish rumpy-pumpy with virtually every bird he meets. Which strikes me as strange, since the urge one would most closely associate with his endless journalistic moralising would be the one to clatter him about the ears with a rolled-up copy of the Swedish PCC code of practice.

All that said, Larsson’s books are certainly page-turners. And there is the thrill of a murky reality too. Swedish inheritance law being based on medieval German custom, poor old Larsson’s commonlaw widow hasn’t seen a bean from the (approximately) 13 million copies his books have sold across Europe. Ironically enough, Larsson’s father and brother have swiped all the cash.

And there’s been an intellectual betrayal: against the author’s firm wish, the titles of his books have been meddled with. In Swedish this one was called The Queen in the Air Castle. The first, naturally enough, was called Men Who Hate Women.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Crime, Fiction, Sweden