Stieg Larsson – The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

This is an excellent conclusion to the Millennium trilogy, more complex and gripping even than the previous two.

The first two books in the trilogy allude to corruption and duplicity among the authorities but focus on the criminal aspects, on corruption in business and Salander and Blomkvist. This book is much wider in its scope, taking in the many layers of corruption in the police, security services, government and social services, that led to Salander’s horrendous predicament. In terms of Scandi-drama, it’s like reading The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen all rolled into one.

It picks up exactly where the last book left off, with Salander in hospital after trying to kill her father, Zachelenco, and half brother Niedermann, at their farm. It then follows the work of Blomkvist, his sister, Berger, Bulanski and others to uncover the truth in the trial. It’s compulsive reading all the way through, particularly Berger’s move to work at national paper SMP and the trial itself towards the end of the book.

The novel is also more noticeably about the relationship between men, women and power than the others. It opens sections talking about historical female leaders and warriors, has a number of powerful female protagonists like Berger, Modig and Giannia – Blomkvist’s sister. Many of the problems experienced by Salander and others like Berger’s harassment come from ingrained, viscous sexism from the authorities. That said, it’s interesting that for much of the book Salander is not much of a player and in fact it is a man, Blomkvist, who is directing so much that happens.

As always there are a bits in the book that are overblown, not least Blomkvist’s near-perfection and his clever, cool heroes and heroines, but these are small things in what is a big and brilliant book. 

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The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

Stieg Larsson – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m not sure what makes the perfect crime novel, but gripping writing, strong characters and deeper themes must be a mix that comes close. The first in Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl’ trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have all this.

The story is sophisticated and summarising it is tricky, but the essence is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the CEO of a large Swedish family business and head of the big Vanger family, to investigate a girl who went missing over thirty years ago. Lisbeth Salander is a strong but emotionally troubled investigator and hacker who ends up helping Mikael. In the process they get close, discover a host of horrific secrets within the Vanger family’s history and then uncover headline-making criminal business dealings from a rival business leader, Wennerstrom.

It’s an excellent plot, as much international thriller as crime fiction.  And the main characters are very well drawn. Lisbeth, with her inner-determination but difficult life and social problems, is  particularly interesting. The fact that it was translated from Swedish make it all the more remarkable.

But what elevates the book, I think, is what it says about abuse, journalism and business.

The most prominent theme of the novel is the abuse of women by men in positions of power. Heads of families abusing daughters, business leaders using their money and status to exploit vulnerable girls, carers abusing those they are caring for… It makes for grim reading, but this is at the heart of the book. The book’s chapters are peppered with facts about sexual abuse in Sweden. And most interesting is Lisbeth’s attitude towards abuse: she experiences abuse from men on a number of occasions, never blames herself, and always seeks revenge.

We see, as well, as very idealised view of investigative journalism, with Blomkvist and the magazine he works for, Millennium, struggling to make ends meet but battling on and stopping at nothing to uncover the truth behind Wennerstrom’s activities.

And Larsson draws a strong contrast, which he makes explicit toward the end of the novel, between the valuable role of businesses in the ‘real’ economy that make things and create jobs, and the rent extracting role of the stockmarket, which simply enriches a few at the expense of the many.

The vitriol against those abusing their power is present throughout the book, both through the rage of the main characters but also in the narrative as a whole. Sometimes this makes the novel seem a little simplistic: investigative journalism is useful but perhaps not as saintly as Larsson depicts it, and the distinction between the stockmarket and the real economy is far from so easy to draw.

But these are small gripes. This is a top quality book that gripped me and got me thinking.

Hakan Nesser – The Hour of the Wolf

The Hour of the Wolf has a great premise and an excellent opening.

The premise is that a man accidentally kills a boy when driving home drunk. He hides the body and then embarks on a series of murders in order to cover up the original one. He ends up being blackmailed by a neighbour. He is not a nice guy, but you’d don’t get the sense that he’s a sadistic serial killer.

The novel is a good look at how a terrible mistake and terrible judgement sets in motion horrendous consequences.
In fact, there is an interesting theme running through it, of people feeling they have no choice but to act in particular ways, though in fact they always do – at how people feel the dice are stacked in one direction but in fact it’s not so simple.

There’s a nice twist, too, with one of the victims being related to Van Veeteran, the retired police officer who Nesser’s series of novels has focused on.

The opening of the book is particularly good. Nesser introduces the man as ‘the man who is about to murder someone’, and the boy as ‘the boy who is about to be killed’. And the following pages draw out how it happens.

Strangely, though, I didn’t love this book. In part, that’s because the plot – the hunt for the killer – kind of just runs out. As opposed to a dramatic ending, it was a bit of an anticlimax. And more importantly, the banter between the police officers, which is a big part of the novel, is a bit like other ‘hyper-realist’ crime fiction I’ve read – too obvious, too banal, somehow too much, to such an extent that it takes away from the novel. 

So … an interesting and sometimes gripping book, but a few elements that make it less than it could be.