The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Somewhere, around the 200th page, I thought to myself: Larsson needs to stop introducing new characters. Every one of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels contains a large cast of characters, but The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest had so many characters who became major or minor protagonists or antagonists that the plot grew complicated and confusing. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, the titular character, played such a minor role in the novel she felt like a McGuffin.

We first met Lisbeth in The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo, where she is also a secondary protagonist. The main protagonist is Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist. After he’s convicted of libel, he takes a sabbatical from Millennium magazine, where he works and is part owner. During this leave, industrialist Henrik Vanger hires him to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, who had vanished decades earlier. As the investigation became more complicated, Blomkvist hires Lisbeth to help him with research. She has a subplot, dealing with a predatorial guardian and her desire to control her own life. Their investigation led to a serial killer who has been operating for decades. 

In the second Millennium novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth steps out of the shadows to become the primary protagonist. Her conflict involves a search for her father, Alexander Zalachenko, a.k.a. Zala, a.k.a. Karl Axel Bodin. When Lisbeth was a girl, Zalachenko beat her mother so severely that she was hospitalized for the rest of her life. To punish him, Lisbeth tossed gasoline on him and lighted him afire. This crime is the foundation of her legal problems and the reason she was in the guardian program. Zalachenko, who had survived the attack, now seeks his revenge. He sends his henchman, Ronald Niedermann, to hunt her down, and he hires the Svavelsjö Motorcycle Club to kidnap her. Murder and mayhem ensue. 

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest begins where The Girl Who Played with Fire ends. Severely injured in her confrontation with Zalachenko and Niedermann, Lisbeth is rushed to the hospital to recover. She spends most of the novel at the hospital. Blomkvist again steps forward as the primary protagonist. Since his friend, former lover, and ex-associate is in legal trouble, he vows to help her. He recognizes there were forces in the intelligence and law-enforcement communities conspiring to railroad her and lock her up for the rest of their life. Along with Dragan Armansky, Lisbeth’s boss, Blomkvist begins his counter organization against “the Zalachenko Club.” They eventually allied with good cops and with honest members of the intelligence organization. Much of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels like a spy-versus-spy thriller.  

This book is the weakest of Larsson’s Millennium novels. As I said above, for most of the novel, Lisbeth Salander played such a minor role she’s less a character and more of a McGuffin. For those who don’t know, a McGuffin (also spelled MacGuffin) is a storytelling device that motivates characters without having any significance to the reader. Angus MacPhail, a screenwriter who often worked with Alfred Hitchcock, coined the term. Lisbeth, trapped in the hospital room and, later, jail, has little connection to the plot. What connection she had felt contrived. My favorite aspect of the Millennium series is Lisbeth Salander, an undersized woman, kicking ass. Alas, there was none of that to be found, not until the epilogue where Lisbeth and Niedermann again meet and fight. Since it’s the epilogue, I suspect it’s a scene Larsson or his publishers felt they needed to add to give readers the ass-kicking Lisbeth they crave. 

Even though Blomkvist was used to Salander’s penchant for shocking clothing, he was amazed that his sister had allowed her to show up to the courtroom in a black leather miniskirt with frayed seams and a black top—with the legend I Am Annoyed—which barely covered her many tattoos. She had ten piercings in her ears, and a ring through her left eyebrow. Her head was covered in three months’ worth of stubble after her surgery. She wore grey lipstick and more black mascara than Blomkvist had ever seen her wear. Her eyebrows were heavily darkened. In the days when he and Salander had spent time together, she had shown almost no interest in make-up.

Though Stieg Larsson intended the Millennium series would have five novels, he died before he could finish the fourth novel. It’s unfinished, and there’s seems to be a dispute about its ownership. Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s lifelong girlfriend, possesses the laptop with the manuscript on it, but since he never married her and his will was ruled invalid, his family owns the copyright. For whatever reason, Gabrielsson and the Larssons are not working together to get the manuscript published. 

Since Larsson’s death in 2004, Lisbeth continues as a character in new novels written by David Lagercrantz. We’ve seen this before, where a dramatic character inspires so much public interest they live in new works long after the original writer dies. Sherlock Holmes and James Bond come to mind—which puts Lisbeth Salander in good company. To date, I haven’t read any of Lagercrantz’s novels, but I imagine I eventually will. They are The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015), The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (2017), and The Girl Who Lived Twice (2019).

Lisbeth Salander also lives on in the movies. Yellow Bird, a Swedish production company, produced Larsson’s novels into three films that share their names. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyquist star as Salander and Blomkvist, respectively. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara star in the American version The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). The first of Lagercrantz’s novels, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, was adapted into a film in 2015. Claire Foy stars as Salander. Since it bombed, I don’t believe the other novels will be adapted.  

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is an unsatisfying conclusion to the Millennium story—understandable since Larsson never meant it to be the conclusion of either Blomkvist’s or Salander’s arcs. Yet, if you’re into the Millennium series, you should read it. Despite the multiple protagonists and the complicated tangle of plots and subplots, I enjoyed it. It is a page-turner. It just had too little of Lisbeth Salander for my taste.  

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