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It’s A Mystery: “His job was to save her life”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, 2010

When we last saw Lisbeth Salander, she was teetering between life and death. Small wonder, after having been shot by her father and buried alive by her brother. Salander was rescued, at the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), by investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, her ex-lover, champion, and loyal friend. Now, in the third and final book of Swedish journalist and crime novelist Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Salander is in a Swedish hospital. She’s convalescing under armed guard while awaiting trial for three murders she didn’t commit.

Meanwhile, down the hall, her father Alexander Zalachenko, a former Soviet spy, is recovering from the injuries he sustained when Lisbeth stuck an axe in his head. Fair play for shooting her. Strong stock (a connection she would definitely eschew), since neither one should be alive. Still, there is nothing that surprises about this twenty-something wisp of a girl who has fought a lifetime of abuse, institutional and familial, with sheer grit and uncanny intelligence. She spends half the novel in a hospital bed, but orchestrating the action from her Palm computer (cleverly smuggled in by Blomkvist without his getting near her), she owns the stage like Lady Macbeth, whose shrinking violet tendencies she shares. She can overpower me on every level, yet I spent most of this book in abject terror for her safety. The bad guys were around every turn.

Blomkvist sets out to prove her innocence by unraveling the decades-old cover up surrounding her father, the Soviet intelligence defector and longtime secret asset to Sapo, Sweden’s security police. This conspiracy within the Swedish secret service has resulted in, among other travesties, Salander being violently mistreated since she was born. Now her being alive threatens to expose the deadly charade, which is exactly what Blomkvist proposes to do:

He opened a new Word document, lit a cigarette, and sat for three minutes staring at the blank screen. Then he began to type.

Her name is Lisbeth Salander. Sweden has got to know her through police reports and press releases and the headlines in the evening papers. She is twenty-seven years old and one metre fifty centimeters tall. She has been called a psychopath, a murderer, and a lesbian Satanist. There has been almost no limit to the fantasies that have been circulated about her. In this issue, Millennium will tell the story of how government officials conspired against Salander in order to protect a pathological murderer….

Thus begins Blomkvist’s crusade to clear Salander’s name and in the process get back at those who remain at the rotten core of Swedish society. A roster of illustrious names, the top secret protectors of Democracy—traitors all. “Intelligence officers,” he tells us, “never really retire, they just slip into the shadows.”

In the Blomkvist/Salander corner are the two detectives from The Girl Who Played with Fire, Criminal Inspector Sonja Modig and Criminal Inspector Jan Bublanski, who believe in her innocence. Blomkvist’s sister, a lawyer, Annika Giannini, has agreed to defend her. Dragan Armansky, Lisbeth’s former employer at Milton Security, offers to help foot the legal bills. And her former guardian, Holger Palmgren, has dragged himself out of his sickbed to help. One of the only good guys in her life, Palmgren has never quite recovered from a crippling stroke. But he’s a tough old bird who can and will testify that Salander was consistently punished for trying to report Zalachenko’s abuse of her mother. For a psychopath without any social graces she’s got a lot of fans:

Salander spent the whole day brooding about Zalachenko. She knew that he was only two doors away…she had failed to kill him…. She was in hot water…. She could not tell how bad the situation was, but she supposed she would have to escape…. The problem was that she could scarcely sit upright in bed….She heard footsteps outside the door and the nurse admitted a pretty, slender woman carrying a black briefcase. Salander saw at once that she had the same eyes as Blomkvist…. Giannini shut the door and pulled up a chair….

“Before we begin to discuss anything, I have to know whether you really do want me to be your lawyer….”

She does but with a caveat:

“I’ll pay your fee myself. I don’t want a single öre from Armansky or Kalle Blomkvist. But I can’t pay before I have access to the Internet.”

“I understand. We’ll deal with that problem when it arises. But do you want me to represent you.?”

Salander gave a curt nod….

“There’s something else I need to tell you…. If I’m not present, you’re not to say a single word to the police. Even if they provoke you….”

“I could manage that.”

It’s definitely the beginning of a meaningful relationship.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Before I do any more poetic waxing about Ms. Salander, her creator and the Millenium Trilogy, it’s time to remind readers that I was one of Lisbeth Salander’s earliest champions. I reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in December 2008 before the buzz had hit the States. And in July 2009, when I beat the drums for The Girl Who Played with Fire, the buzz was there, but nothing like it is today. The extraordinary popularity of this series, including the latest reviewed here, is almost unparalleled (it may even rival J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series). They are bestsellers all in hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market editions. And the craze shows no signs of abating. You can’t ride a public conveyance without spotting a copy, or two or three. The staff of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Ore., one of the largest and best in the US, calls Salander “The girl who’s paying our salaries.” I called her “intriguing, mesmerizing, and addictive.” I still feel proprietary towards her.

It bears repeating that what lifts this trilogy near the top of any desert island must read list is the drawing power of Salander. She’s vulnerable at her core yet totally in control. She’s a study in paradoxes. She steals the novels out from under everyone. Mario Vargas Llosa said in a recent tribute in El Pais that Salander was one of the great “just avengers” in popular literature. Vargas Llosa went on to say that he read the Millenium Trilogy with the “same happiness and feverish excitement with which he had read Dumas, Dickens and Hugo as a boy, wondering as I turned each page what’s going to happen next.”

Stieg Larsson died an untimely death, at the age of fifty in 2004, after handing in his trilogy. Clearly, he never expected this kind of success. But it would surely not have surprised him that intrigue follows him to his grave. Because of Sweden’s sexist inheritance laws, his live-in lover of 32 years Eva Gabrielsson has been denied any royalties. She is entitled to nothing under Swedish law. Sweden, it seems, is not the social democratic haven we imagined. Her fight with Larsson’s brother and father have yielded a pittance. Still, in a delicious turn of events, it seems that Eva has a laptop with three-quarters of a manuscript. A bargaining chip for any and all seasons. Stay tuned.

Larsson, like his character Mikael Blomkvist, was an investigative journalist who campaigned diligently to expose both the wrongdoing of right-wing extremists and the exploitation and abuse of women in Sweden. According to his colleagues, Larsson was a rare example of a male feminist. Just as Lisbeth Salander is an even rarer example of a popular feminist heroine, who doesn’t hate men, “just men who hate women.” Not surprisingly, these are the themes in all three of his novels. (Men Who Hate Women was the original title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)

Like its predecessors, the final volume in the trilogy juggles multiple plot strands, woven together ingeniously. They make for artful and grand entertainment. Lisbeth Salander is surely one of the most original female characters in twentieth century fiction. I will miss her.

___
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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