The new Millenium
The girl who kicked the hornets’ nest by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland (MacLehose Press)
A few years ago I was in a supermarket in Carcassonne, southern France, looking for a book to read on holiday. I noticed that something called Millennium seemed to be numbers one, two and four on the bestseller list—yet I had never heard of it.
That was my introduction to Stieg Larsson’s meaty trilogy of thrillers.
Now the story of the author is as well known as his characters.
He died suddenly in 2004, having delivered the text of the trilogy to his publisher.
Larsson was editor-in-chief of the antiracist magazine, Expo, and an expert on antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and Nazi organisations. He used this background to good effect in the creation of the campaigning fictional magazine, Millennium. He also used his knowledge of Sapo, Sweden’s secret police, and the jostling for position after the end of the Cold War between Europe and Russia.
The first in the sequence, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, introduced readers to diminutive Lisbeth Salander. A brilliant computer hacker, she’s a woman prepared to use violence to achieve her ends, a vigilante with no faith in the authorities, someone who—we gradually learn—has been the victim of a colossal miscarriage of justice. She is the daughter of a brutal, psychopathic Russian defector, Zalachenko, whose perceived importance to the state and national security is deemed more significant than the fact that he is a wife-beater and abuser. At the age of 13, Salander is declared insane and locked away in a psychiatric unit to prevent her blowing her father’s cover.
The second book in the sequence, The Girl Who Played with Fire, develops these themes of the abuse of legal power, of retribution and debts being paid, rough justice all round, and finishes with an extraordinary shoot-out during which Salander is buried alive.
Now comes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, with Salander fighting for her life in intensive care, her father lying a few doors along the corridor as a result of wounds inflicted on him by Salander herself.
Throughout the novel, the covert workings of the Swedish secret service are laid bare, as are the cut-throat realities of the world of newspapers and the immorality of some in authority. The theme of how words can be a force for justice permeates the narrative, and the story of Millennium, for which Larsson’s other protagonist, campaigning journalist Mikael Blomkvist, works, continues to develop.
So, is this the climax to the sequence that fans will want? Larsson has produced a coup de foudre, a novel that is complex, satisfying, clever, moral. At its heart is the question of whether or not the forces trying to destroy Salander, to protect themselves, will triumph; whether the strained relationship between Blomkvist and Salander can be repaired, and whether or not the defence lawyer chosen to represent her—Blomkvist’s sister, Gianni—will be able to produce a case.
Throughout, there is a sense of comeuppance, as well as a more subtle undercurrent examining how society chooses to treat those it does not understand, how madness is defined and how easy it is to look the other way. The clever twists and turns mean that it is far from a foregone conclusion that Salander will even make it to the courtroom.
Women appear on these pages as equal players—police officers, advocates, journalists—rather than just glamorous sidekicks or victims, as in so many thrillers, and each section is prefaced with information about the elite fighting forces throughout history that were made up of women soldiers.
About 50 pages before the end of the novel, Blomkvist sums up the nature of Salander’s experience: “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.”
It is this moral purpose, if you like, that sets Larsson’s trilogy apart from most thrillers. There is no pornographic violence to pep up a dull chapter, no mindless technology, just everything woven together with purpose and, despite the high body count, a plausible narrative.
This is a grown-up novel for grown-up readers, who want something more than a quick fix and a car chase. And it’s why the Millennium trilogy is rightly a publishing phenomenon all over the world.—