Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy, Part 2 - The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Millennium Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Stieg Larsson
(Blogger Note: This review was published in the October, 2010 edition of "LAMLight," the phyician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine and completes my review of the The Millennium Trilogy begun in the previous blog post.)

In my last blog post I began a review of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  As you may recall, these books have sold over 27 million copies in forty countries over the past five years.  The author, Stieg Larsson, was a Swedish political activist and journalist who died at age 50 from coronary disease shortly after turning the books into his publisher.  Again, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was reviewed in my last blog post and I will conclude in this post with a review of the final two books of the trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. 

             The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduces the two main characters who dominate all three books.  They are Lisbeth Salander, a mysterious and socially awkward young woman in her twenties and Mikael Blomqvist, a discredited journalist.  In Dragon Tattoo the two team up to investigate a decades old missing person case which eventually discloses a serial killer and sexual predator.  Lisbeth uses her skills as a computer hacker to help with the investigation.  As Dragon Tattoo concludes, Lisbeth also provides the information which vindicates Blomqvist.  Her new information (obtained by illegal computer investigation) overturns Mikael’s previous libel conviction and puts him back in good standing with the journalism community.  Using her abilities as a computer genius,  Lisbeth also steals all of the industrialist’s money (billions of dollars).  Lisbeth proceeds to leave the country in a jealous rage when she sees Mikael back with his part-time lover and editor of the magazine he works for.       

              Played with Fire opens with Michael hard at work as a publisher of “Millennium” magazine.  He is working with two free-lance reporters on a story to expose sex trafficking in Sweden.  The research that these two free lancers have produced implicates some police as well as high placed Swedish politicians and security officers.  One mysterious character keeps turning up in the investigation, identified only by the letter “Z”.  Meanwhile, Lisbeth has returned to Sweden, mainly because of boredom, but also to reconnect with her lesbian lover Miriam Wu.  As the article on sex trafficking is near completion, the two free lance writers are found shot in their apartment by none other than Mikael Blomqvist.  On the same evening that the two writers are murdered, Lisbeth’s previous legal custodian is murdered as well.  Circumstantial evidence links Lisbeth to the crimes and a nationwide search is begun.  The only person in Sweden who is convinced of Lisbeth’s innocence is Mikael Blomqvist.  The book then follows a chase to find Lisbeth – by the police who are convinced she is a mad serial killer, by Mikael Blomqvist who loyally wants to prove that she is not guilty of these  crimes and, finally, by members of the Swedish security community who have much more sinister motives.  The reader eventually discovers that the mysterious “Z” character is actually a Russian spy named Zalachenko who defected to the Swedes during the Cold War.  He was “handled” and protected by a small cadre of special security agents within the Swedish secret police.  Zalachenko also turns out to be Lisbeth Salander’s father.  He has a record of physical violence, including beating Lisbeth’s mother into a coma.  He also is the mastermind behind the ring of criminals responsible for the trafficking of young Eastern European girls for the purpose of prostitution.  The plot of this second book is nothing if not tortuous.   Following the trails of Lisbeth Salander as she eludes the police, Zalachenko’s various compatriots as they try to cover up his crimes and the actual police who are clueless as to the complexity of the situation, is difficult.  The many Swedish names are similar and therefore difficult to remember.  The fact that two main characters are named Nieminen (a biker dude who tries to destroy evidence and find Salander under the direction of Zalachenko) and Niedermann (Zalachenko’s son and Salander’s half-brother who operates as a bodyguard and hit-man) makes the whole thing difficult to decipher.  The conclusion of Played with Fire is really just a “page break” and resolves few of the issues raised in the plot:  The relationship between Salander and Zalachenko is well-defined, but their fates are literally hanging.  Both of these characters are critically injured in a final confrontation on an isolated farm.

            This is the way that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest begins:  Salander is in the operating room for a gun shot wound to her head.  Zalachenko has a severe ax wound to his face and other less critical injuries.  Niedermann is on the loose, having killed a policeman during his escape from the final confrontation in Played with Fire.  During most of Hornet’s Nest  Salander is in the hospital recovering from her injury.  Zalachenko is assassinated in his hospital bed (by whom is a critical plot line).  It has become clear by now that Lisbeth was not responsible for the murders in the Played with Fire, but she is being charged with the attempted murder of her father.  Blomqvist is even more determined to prove Lisbeth’s innocence and find out who has been protecting Zalachenko all of these years and why.  Blomqvist also discovers the identities of the security agents who controlled Zalachenko over the decades and unravels all of their misdeeds.  These injustices included falsifying psychiatric evaluations of the teenaged Salander, thus committing her to years in a mental institution to keep her from exposing her infamous father (Zalachenko).  Blomqvist (with the aid of a recovering Salander and her computer skills) finally figures out the whole mess, writes a huge expose and Salander is finally vindicated.  During all this, Blomqvist also falls in love with one of the female police investigators, but does manage to reconcile with Salander by the end of the Trilogy.

            Upon completing The Millennium Trilogy I am reminded of a quote attributed to  Sir Winston Churchill.  When asked about a colleague Churchill is reported to have said:  "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."  These novels have many “virtues”.  They have fast-pace action sequences with explicitly detailed violence and sex (often together).  The three volume plot is very sinister and complex; by the mid-point of Played with Fire the plot is complex to the point of being almost impossible to follow.  There is an almost obligatory court scene at the conclusion of Hornet’s Nest which, while wrapping up some plot-line “loose ends”, seems anti-climactic.   The “vices” which I relish in a good novel include these:  First and foremost, I prefer likable characters.  The author, while developing his characters well and giving us plenty of back-story to really get to know them, never makes any of his characters very sympathetic.  When a story concerns a tragic victim, especially one of such epic proportions as Lisbeth Salander, I want to like the character.  It’s hard to really like Lisbeth Salander.  The reader can’t help but feel sorry for her, but like her?  I think not.  Mikael Blomqvist, who represents the hero of these stories, is ethically sound as an investigative journalist but has the sexual mores of an alley cat.  Blomqvist’s own sister, an attorney who represents Salander, even describes her brother as someone who “screws his way through life without regard to the consequences”.  This represents a contradiction which was hard for me to resolve.  The cabal of government security people, psychiatrists and lawyers who conspire to imprison Lisbeth and protect her despicable father are not flawed characters with mis-guided good intentions.  They are egotistical, delusional and (for the most part) sex driven maniacs.  What’s to like or relate to in these characters?  Not much.   I also enjoy and appreciate thorough description of place and setting, which the author did a great job of in the first book but abandons in the last two. 

            In summary, The Millennium Trilogy, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is an international publishing phenomenon.  These books are well written, fast paced and intriguing.  The subject matter contains details which are not for the faint of heart. The characters are multi-dimensional and (at least Lisbeth Salander) unusual but not particularly likable.  The story is complex, but, in the end, complete.  Apparently there is a nearly finished fourth book that has been found in Mr. Larsson’s laptop.  Who knows where this will lead?

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