The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Issue section: 
(341)

Stieg Larsson, MacLehose Press; £18.99

I raced through The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Every journey on the bus or tube was an opportunity to steam my way through this monster of a book. But at page 550 I slammed on the brakes. I had the sudden realisation that I was within 50 pages of reading the complete literary works of Swedish author Stieg Larsson.

Larsson died in 2004, soon after delivering the manuscripts for his Millennium trilogy. This book is the grand finale, following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl who Played with Fire.

If you have read Larsson's previous novels, I suspect that nothing I write here will put you off reading it (if you've not done so already, that is). So, as a formality, I'll get the negatives out of the way. First, the English titles to the trilogy are far inferior to the original Swedish titles (look them up) and put the wrong spin on what the books are actually about. Second, you need to be careful not to miss your bus stop.

The story leads off from the cliff hanger of the previous book, but we are allowed no respite as the tension is cranked up several more notches within the first few chapters. Lisbeth Salander is in deep trouble. She has a bullet in her brain, is wanted for multiple murders, and has her photograph on every newspaper front page in the country. This is the last thing that Salander - an expert hacker and all-round genius, but with serious social skill problems - wants in her life right now. To prove her innocence she will have to show a vast conspiracy against her by the Swedish Security Service and awaken a constitutional crisis - all from near solitary confinement in a hospital bed which is guarded round the clock.

Thus returns Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist, who goes to work to expose one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Swedish history. The story involves several groups of journalists, various branches of the police and security services, and numerous organised criminals. This all hits you like a hurricane, whipping new questions up into the air before they slowly, and perfectly, settle. And it is all done with Larsson's incredible attention to detail.

He describes what the characters are thinking, what clothes they are wearing and perhaps even what they had for breakfast. Sometimes such over-description can slow down a story, but here it just builds up the suspense. It is no surprise that Larsson founded and worked as an investigative journalist for the Swedish anti-fascist magazine Expo. He creates vast conspiracies and cover-ups and then sets his characters about exposing them, in meticulous detail.

Larsson, himself a Trotskyist, incorporates many progressive themes into the book. It is about a system creating and protecting men who get pleasure and profit from exploiting women. It's about a state that condemns the weakest in society in order to save its own skin. It's about an acceptance that those with power and money crawl over the rest of us to get it. And it's a story about human nature, and what makes us what we are.