Viking Canada, 2009 translation of 2007 original, 563 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06903-3
The story surrounding Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is often as interesting as the trilogy itself: Larsson, a left-wing Swedish journalist known for his anti-fascism investigations, turned to fiction writing late in life and delivered the first three books of a series before dying of a heart attack. The books became a sensation throughout the world, finally landing in North America in 2009-2010 alongside their own movie adaptations. While rumours abound that a fourth semi-finished manuscript exists, it does so on a computer belonging to Larsson’s long-time partner, who is now locked in a legal battle with the rest of Larsson’s family for a piece of the author’s estate.
This has little relation to what a review of the third volume of the trilogy should be talking about, except for the open-ended question of whether this is truly the final volume of Mikael Blomvkist and Lizbeth Salander’s adventures. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest picks up moments after the events of the second volume, as a badly wounded Salander is airlifted to one of Sweden’s best hospitals. Drama follows when her equally-wounded father/enemy ends up in a room not too far away. If the previous volume The Girl Who Played with Fire was about revenge, this one is about the consequences of going after one’s enemy with an axe, as the question of whether the Swedish state considers Salander capable of acting on her own comes back to the forefront. It doesn’t help that she has earned the attention of a powerful faction within Sweden’s own secret services, and that they won’t stop at anything to eliminate the threat…
Readers who have made it this far in Larsson’s series will be pleased to note that this third volume delivers everything they’ve come to expect from him: A lavishly detailed procedural novel written from an activist point of view, criticizing the underbelly of the Swedish Social-Democratic model –particularly the way it treats women. Blomvkist once again feels like a Gary-Sue idealized representation of the author (he manages to seduce another female character without doing much more than showing up), and even gets an action scene of his own. Salander is up to her usual tricks, except for having forgotten her Fermat Theorem Proof in the aftermath of surviving a bullet in the head. (It’s amusing how insane this sounds once summarized from Larsson’s multi-page explanations.) It all leads to courtroom drama, and a conclusion that not only provides a happy ending for Salander, but obliterates all of her enemies. Given the black-and-while nature of the series so far, few will be surprised when it’s revealed that people who oppose her are all violent, stupid, and/or guilty of horrible other offenses.
The conclusion is curiously satisfying when it shows the Swedish state activating its own self-policing mechanism: the conspiracy is taken down by the proper authorities, and not through some American-style idealized personal vendetta. It’s one of the challenges of left-leaning writers to portray an effective and compassionate state when the unspoken rule of thrillers is that official corruption always runs deep: Larsson manages quite a deft success in portraying how even the heroes can benefit from some official help.
Fans of the films will note once again note how much more material is in the book, from a top-level meeting for Blomvkist to an entire subplot taking place at another newspaper. But that amount of new material also betrays Larsson’s biggest problem: An inability to tell a story efficiently. There is no need, for instance, to begin the book by spending two pages describing how an American neurosurgeon is asked to assist in Salander’s brain surgery. At times, the book feels like a lengthy third act to a story that could have been published as a single volume. It’s exasperating, and the amount of stuff never shown and never missed in the leisurely-paced films adaptations suggests how much fluff there is in the series.
Alas, we’ll never know for sure if Larsson would have written the other planned volumes in his series in a more economical fashion. It’s ludicrous to believe that this will remain the final Millennium volume: At a time where napkin premises from long-deceased Robert Ludlum are being expanded in entire trilogies written by other authors, there will be other adventures for Blomvkist and Salander. They may even be based on Larsson’s actual notes. But they won’t have the surprise kick that propelled them to such popular attention.
Considering that Larsson’s books were reportedly the first translated novels to hit the top of the English market’s best-selling list, it’s not as if he has anything left to prove, even posthumously.