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Onyx reviews: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

Though the titles of Stieg Larsson's three novels (the previous two are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire) all refer to Lisbeth Salander, and the plots of the last two books emanate from her troubled and troubling backstory, the diminutive anti-hero is curiously passive and submissive throughout most of the series. She rarely takes center stage and steadfastly refuses to cooperate with anyone: police, doctors, lawyers, friends and enemies alike. She is most at home at a keyboard, hacking into supposedly secure computers. Salander can do more with a Palm Pilot than most people could manage with a supercomputer.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest starts a few hours after the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire. Salander has been transported to hospital with life-threatening injuries, including a bullet in her head. Her father, the former Russian spy Alexander Zalachenko, who has been living in Sweden under an assumed name for decades, is also in serious condition from the axe wounds to the head he received at Salander's hands. Father and daughter end up in adjacent rooms after surgery. Though they're both immobile, each is aware of the presence of the other. The most dangerous member of this dysfunctional family, Ronald Niedermann, Salander's brother, the giant who can't feel pain, escaped from the inept local police. 

After weeks as the prime suspect for the murderers of two journalists and her legal guardian, Salander is no longer under suspicion, thanks in large part to Mikael Blomkvist's independent investigation. However, she is still under arrest and could be charged with attempted murder and assault causing grievous bodily harm against her father and two thugs.

The principal investigators in the police department finally see things Mikael's way. Their change in focus threatens to expose a secret organization within Swedish intelligence, a division formed to handle Zalachenko after his defection. This group, officially sanctioned by the prime minister at the time, is so secret that no one in the government knows they exist any more. They covered up Zalachenko's messes in the subsequent years, but more or less disbanded when the fall of the communist empire made the defector less valuable. Mikael's story could cause a constitutional crisis if it isn't handled properly, so a select group of high-ranking, trustworthy politicians are advised of and consulted about the situation. The politicians know that the worst thing they could do is to interfere with the press.

Salander is one of those messes left over from the cabal's cover-ups, the daughter of Zalachenko's ill-advised, brutal, on again/off again liaison. The secret faction had Salander illegally committed to a psychiatric facility after her previous attempt on Zalachenko's life when she was thirteen. Zalachenko subsequently injured her mother so seriously that the woman spent the rest of her life in hospital.

Salander is confined to her hospital room without visitors. Even the police—who wish to interrogate her about the events at the farm where she was attacked, buried and dug herself to freedom so she could confront her assailants—can't see her. Mikael is in a position to negotiate with the police and other investigators because he is in possession of material they can't legally obtain any other way. 

He is protective of Salander and her secrets. He wants to help her, but only if she agrees to reveal certain details about her past. He comes up with an ingenious—albeit illegal—way of skirting the fact that he isn't allowed to see her to engage her in her own defense. He also enlists the support of his sister as Salander's attorney, even though she has little experience as a criminal lawyer.

Millennium is suffering its own crisis—Erika Berger has agreed to become editor-in-chief of Stockholm's leading conservative daily newspaper. Her departure leaves the magazine short staffed, and her new position brings with it newsroom power struggles and resentments. Her confrontational and aggressive style makes enemies and she also acquires a stalker. To make matters worse, one of her former colleagues turns up information that puts her dangerously close to a conflict of interest and threatens to topple the already teetering newspaper.

As usual, Mikael abandons Millennium to its remaining staff as he throws himself into the investigation. He is determined that Salander's rights will never again be trampled as badly as they were in the past. However, he's not all business.  From the moment a muscular, statuesque female security agent appears on the scene, it should be obvious to anyone who has read the previous books that she and Mikael will end up in bed. For a pudgy, middle-aged, taciturn journalist, Blomkvist proves irresistible to women.

The final section of the book, which takes place in the Swedish courts, is especially interesting because it provides an insider's look at the Swedish inquisitorial legal system, which is markedly different from the adversarial system depicted on Perry Mason or Law & Order. During the closed trial, the judge has the freedom to ask questions of anyone present in the courtroom, regardless of who is currently on the stand. It seems more like a freewheeling debate than a trial.

The final book is the fastest paced and most intricately plotted of the three, and the most successful overall. Larsson's writing is not stylistically elegant (though when dealing with translations one can never be sure what was lost) and his forté is not characterization, either. After hundreds, if not thousands, of pages, little has been revealed of Mikael's true character, the origins of his zealousness or his indignation at certain social injustices. Less is known about the other characters, with the exception of Lisbeth Salander, who is one of the more unique creations in recent history. 

Though the novels were written over five years ago, the technology used by the hackers isn't noticeably dated, which is a commendable accomplishment. The books could have used a strong editorial hand to trim some of his excesses, though, both in the way his personal opinions are written into the text like journalistic exposés and his tendency to ramble on at length on extraneous matters. Probably a quarter of this book could have been cut without it suffering. 

Larsson had plans for as many as seven more installments in this series, novels that will never be written because of his untimely death before even the first one could see publication. For the most part, the tale ends on a satisfactory note, though there are elements of Salander's past that Larsson was clearly reserving for further exploration.

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