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'Hornet's Nest': In Stinging Mystery, Feminist Fury

The final verdict is in: Steig Larsson has posthumously proven himself to be one of the Greats of Mystery Fiction, taking his place in the pantheon along with other demi-Gods like Christie, Sayers, Hammett, Chandler, Robert Parker and his (still-breathing) fellow Swede, Henning Mankell. With the frantically awaited American publication of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the last novel in his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, the soaring architectural ambition of Larsson's trilogy fully reveals itself. Once readers recover from the depression always attendant upon reaching the end of a superb story (and from the particular sadness here of knowing that Larsson, who died of a heart attack after turning in the manuscripts of his three mysteries, won't be writing any more) many of them will want to return to the first novel, to savor -- with the wisdom of the newly enlightened -- the earliest hints of the catastrophes to come.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest makes clear that all three of Larsson's novels ingeniously turn on the classic "locked room" mystery plot. In the debut thriller, our hero, disgraced business journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and our matchless heroine, Goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, joined forces to solve the decades-old disappearance of a young woman from an island off the coast of Sweden that was entirely sealed-off from the mainland. The second novel of the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, found Lisbeth accused of a triple murder and holed up in her secret apartment, hiding out from the police and feeding the dogged Blomkvist clues to the background of the crimes via computer.

In this culminating novel, Salander is again at the still center of a force five horror: She lies immobile-but-still-texting in a locked hospital room. The indefatigable Salander is recovering from a bullet to the brain and a premature burial. Meanwhile, Blomkvist -- aided by some of his fellow journalists, rogue hackers and skeptical police detectives -- scurries around unearthing the dimensions of a monstrous Cold War-era scandal within the Swedish government whose long fallout has warped Salander into the Ms. Not Nice Girl loner she is today. (In a life-or-death courtroom scene late in the novel, the nonplussed 20-something-year-old Salander saunters before the judge wearing a frayed black leather mini skirt and a T-shirt that reads: "I AM ANNOYED")

Salander's gloriously anti-authoritarian personality is of a piece with the unapologetic feminist vision of Larsson's novels. Every positive character here, male and female, fights the good fight against the forces of misogyny -- both the everyday sexism that assumes female deference to be the default position in the workplace and the more violent eruptions that result in psychological and sexual abuse and, sometimes, even death. Larsson opens The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest with a short prologue about female warriors throughout history. Among the "warriors" in this tale are Blomkvist's sister, who is a lawyer specializing in women's rights cases, and Erika Berger, Blomkvist's longtime lover who has taken over the helm of a militantly old-boy newspaper. Clearly, however, it's Salander's own story -- stretching over the three books -- that's intended as the central saga.

Salander is a flawed-but-riveting modern-day Amazon who faces down the evils of the global sex trade and the blanketing indifference of a patriarchal government. Whenever feminist mystery writers (and fellow demi-Gods of the genre) Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton have gone explicit with the sexual politics in their novels, they've been slammed for being "preachy." No such complaints have been flung at Larsson. Perhaps overt feminism in detective fiction is more palatable coming from a man ... or from a Swede ... or ... who knows? The literary and political miracle here is that Larsson managed to create an unforgettably steely series that fixates on: "violence against women, and the men who enable it." As a mystery lover and a feminist, I'm grateful for the Salander novels and also saddened that Salander and Blomkvist won't be making any more citizen's arrests in the future.

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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.