THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The girl who kicked misogyny and hate

Stieg Larsson’s popular trilogy offered thrills along with critique of a fraying Europe

(Illustration by Erik Swanson)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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So we’ve waited the better part of a year to discover whether it’s curtains for Lisbeth Salander. OK, some of us have waited. Some of us have turned for our final Stieg Larsson fix to Europe, where “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’’ has been a blockbuster bestseller for 36 months. The more patient among us have been permitted to speculate, until the book’s tardy US release last week, about the bullet in Salander’s head, the men who buried her alive, and how on earth she’ll live to see another day.

The shame is that it turns out we’ve waited to discover that she’s in intensive care. After all she endured in “The Girl Who Played with Fire,’’ which was published in English last year, where else would she be? But spending most of the book’s 500-plus pages with her on the sidelines is a little like going out to Foxborough to watch Tom Brady hug the bench. On one level, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is greater than a simple crime series. It’s grappling with the fraying fabric of European society and the political dynamics between the sexes. But in order to appreciate Larsson’s wider canvas, we have to evaluate the brush strokes.

The plot picks up with Salander receiving emergency brain surgery. She remains wanted for three murders that it’s hard to believe she committed. The man who shot her is her father, a former Russian spy who owes his Scandinavian citizenship to a super-secret Swedish government outfit whose elder members are murderously determined to keep their identities private.

As Salander’s legal hot water intensifies, it’s the slutty but righteous reporter Mikael Blomkvist and his Millennium magazine to the rescue. Blomkvist remains convinced of her innocence and commits himself to clearing her name, going so far as to talk his sister, a feminist attorney, into defending her during the book’s wonderfully overcooked courtroom climax. Meanwhile, the Salander affair, as it’s called, bleeds into the new editor-in-chief job of Erika Berger, Millennium’s former editor and Blomkvist’s part-time lover. The new book also introduces, among others, a bodybuilding female government agent (you’ll never guess whose bed she winds up in).

“Hornet’s Nest” is 90 percent government, police, and legal procedural, in which Salander, until the tidily packaged epilogue, has little more to do than send urgent messages to her hacker friends from her hospital bed, and while the story eddies juicily around her, you crave to see her in action. Instead, there is a Dickens-load of characters that Larsson interweaves nicely, but they do little more than fill roles like pieces on a chessboard — pawns, kings, knights, inspectors built like rooks. Salander is the Garry Kasparov of it all, chess being but one indicator of her tactical genius.

She is one reason people are eager to come back to these books. This is the rare fictional creation who seems not only smarter than most of the characters she encounters but cleverer and tougher than we are. Salander hacks computers. She sleeps with boys and girls. She loves complex math. She knows a hundred ways to hurt you and can endure pain that would kill half the superheroes in the Marvel comic-book universe. Salander is brilliant, violent, unstable, sweet, tough, inscrutable, yet an oddly reasonable, achingly human creature. Her life is full of abuse violence, and familial woe, but her resilience and peculiar moral stance give the book most of its thrill. She’s what Nancy Drew might be had she been produced in a collaboration between William Gibson and Lars von Trier.

Larsson’s best trait as a writer — he died at 50 in 2004 — was that he more than filled the requirement for his genre: The pages fly. You roll your eyes, suck your teeth, and laugh in disbelief. But the pulse quickens all the same. His novels’ adequacy as thrillers trounces most crime books. For one thing, the stakes are precipitously higher: The crux of the books is a kind of gender war.

The title of Larsson’s first book made the stakes clear. It was translated into English from Swedish as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’’ which isn’t bad — the novels are about a woman, and she does have a dragon tattoo. But the Swedish title is “The Men Who Hate Women.’’ How much better is that? The books — in their enjoyably trashy way — aim to unpack why. A loose answer is revealed in “Hornet’s Nest.’’

That’s another reason for their popularity. At their exhilarating crudest, these are revenge novels. For these times of terrorism, torture, murder, entitlement, and corruption, it feels good to see evil get its face bashed in. For Blomkvist, Larsson writes in “The Girl Who Played with Fire,’’ “there were always people who were responsible. The bad guys.’’ Larsson’s moralism results in grisliness, but it’s absolute. Salander tortures men, beats them up, leaves them for dead. But, according to the moral world Larsson establishes, they deserve it. Larsson’s nasty achievement is that you root for comeuppance. Did that wife-beater that Salander attacked just get sucked away by a freak tornado? Good riddance!

The movies based on Larsson’s trilogy were smashes in Europe. Word of mouth has made the film of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’’ a minor success in American art houses; the other two films are slated for release later this year. The Millennium movies are purely overseas phenomena. We’ll wait for David Fincher’s Hollywood adaptation, thank you. Anyway, the books can be like reading a movie.

In each of these novels, but especially in “Hornet’s Nest,’’ you’re parched for a flashback or a metaphor or a simile. Very little is “like’’ or “as’’ anything else. (The similes we do get seem lost in Reg Keeland’s translations like this one from “The Girl Who Played With Fire’’: “He got up with an expression like a thundercloud.’’) The prose forms a chain-link fence of declarative sentences. The climactic chapter involves a trial that’s carried out almost entirely in a dialogue. The action sequences certainly have pop, but they also have an instructional, forensic air:

“Then [Niederman] heard a series of sharp cracks that sounded like pistol shots. The sound was so close that at first he could not tell where it was coming from. He turned to look. Then he felt a strange pressure against his left foot. He felt no pain, but he looked down just in time to see Salander’s hand moving the nail gun over to his right foot.’’

These books are a screenwriter’s dream. One action sequence in “Girl Who Played with Fire’’ cuts rapidly back and forth between characters’ points of view the way a movie would: Just add camera.

Even without the movies’ attention, Larsson’s writing actually adds up to a chilling indictment.

These books give us a changing Sweden, in which the old guard is fighting against its obsolescence. White European men are nincompoops, Nazis, Neanderthals, rapists, sex-traffickers, wife-beaters, thieves, liars, and, in one or two cases, worse. Our sympathies lie with the women. They’re all smart, resourceful, tough, empathetic, and fiercely moral, and the men who aid them are, for the most part, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, gay, or Blomkvist.

Sure, Larsson’s writing demonstrates a healthy appetite for sleaze. He liked writing about rape, shootouts, hot lesbian sex, fake breasts, stalkers, sensationalist trials, axes to the face, Molotov cocktails (as thrown by a tween girl), assault, espionage, and Ikea. But at the end of the day, he was as devoted to exposing moral rot in Sweden as the Austrian director Michael Haneke is to challenging the dark legacies of European patriarchy and David Simon is to dramatizing how bureaucracies kill American cities.

At some point in “Hornet’s Nest,’’ Blomkvist sums up the climactic court case against Salander. “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women and the men who enable it.’’ He’s talking about the entire Larsson experience, too. And like the books themselves, it’s not a subtle point, but it’s extremely effective.

Larsson had intended to write a cycle of 10 books. He was completing the fourth when he died. But how much more danger could he have devised for Salander and Blomkvist? She’s a detective more by circumstance and trade than temperament. The idea of her being drawn back into trouble would turn into a shtick — the crime-thriller version of James Brown throwing off his cape at the end of every show. And yet Salander’s expanding the natures of her investigations would not have been an unappealing possibility.

Many readers have hoped that Larsson’s partner of many decades, Eva Gabrielsson, would complete book four. She’s already finished an upcoming biography about him (one of several), is fighting for a share of the novels’ royalties, and is rumored to have been more intimately involved with the trilogy. A former colleague of Larsson’s has suggested to the BBC that it’s Gabrielsson who wrote the books. That’s a heretical suggestion in Sweden, where Larsson remains revered. But it does nothing to diminish the series’ allure.

Wesley Morris, a Globe film critic, can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST By Stieg Larsson

Translated, from Swedish, by Reg Keeland

Knopf, 563 pp., $27.95