Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

It's easy to say that the third volume in the most popular trilogy since Lord of the Rings is not as good as the other two. But it may actually be the one closest to Stieg Larsson's heart as he wrote about political corruption for a Swedish audience.

Larsson, who died prematurely, presumably had no inkling that his saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist would become a runaway international bestseller, and this third volume is heavy with Swedish domestic politics. What was a simple detective story touching universal themes in the first volume becomes almost a roman a clef in the third.

So it takes a certain amount of devotion to make it through the first half of this 600-page tome. One of the problems is that Salander is so little present. Another is the somewhat ponderous development of the complex plot. Larsson would have benefited here from the chance to work with an editor.

However, once Salander is on the scene again and the laboriously established plot gains some momentum, the reader can cruise at high speed through the second half. Salander is as quirky and intriguing as ever, with that gritty integrity which makes her so admirable. Blomkvist and Berger are their flawed, narcissistic selves.

There's much less discipline in this volume. The Amazon Monica Figuerola is an over-the-top fiction as Larsson indulges a highly personal fantasy. She's as perfect as a robot, with the same amount of appeal. Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini, too, is always just right. Ditto for several other characters. The evil villains are perfectly evil. Prosecutor Ekstrom borders on pure satire and is somewhat entertaining as a result.

But Salander and a neatly unfolding plot keep the reader's interest. The epilogue is not a throwaway and should really be just the last chapter, tying up the loose end that is so conspicuously dangling when the main plot comes to its conclusion. To call it contrived would be an understatement, but at least the loose end gets tied up.

So I would probably rank the trilogy 2, 1, 3, with the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire my favorite simply because it keeps Salander at center stage for the most time. For its thriller quality, the first volume, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is probably the tightest.

Sadly, there will be no further adventures for Salander, nor any further thrills from Larsson's fertile mind. Not sorry to be finished with Blomkvist, Berger and Millennium -- they're all a little too smug and too full of their role as the guardians of Swedish freedom and democracy. What I will miss is Larsson's feeling for the profound corruption in society and its basis in personal corruption, the underlying current that moves these entertaining volumes along.

What is Salander's appeal? Grit, yes; integrity, yes; an ability to cut through cant to the heart of the matter, yes. But I think at heart it's her vulnerability -- she is a victim who overcomes her hurt but remains vulnerable, literally to the last minute in this long saga. And her realization, at the end, but really throughout, that the only real protection is reliance on her friends.

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