Saturday, July 16, 2011

the last book I read

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson.

So, here we are again, erm, again. At the end of The Girl Who Played With Fire there's been an explosive confrontation at the old Zalachenko place which has left Zalachenko himself with axe wounds (inflicted by miniature tattooed Lara Croft-alike Lisbeth Salander) to the leg and face and Salander herself with bullet wounds to the hip, shoulder and head. Just for good measure there's giant blond killing machine Ronald Niedermann - who has been revealed to be Zalachenko's son and therefore Salander's half-brother - handcuffed to a road sign where he's been left by crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

So we're into the action pretty much straight away as the authorities try to clear up the mess. Salander and Zalachenko both end up in hospital under police surveillance, while a couple of plods are sent to pick up Niedermann. This turns out to be a really bad idea, as the giant psycho pretty much rips them apart with his bare hands before making good his escape. Meanwhile Blomkvist, with the assistance of the staff at Millennium magazine and some co-operative police officers (and the hindrance of some less co-operative ones) tries to pull together the strands of the background to the Salander/Zalachenko affair, a tangled web of intrigue involving the Swedish secret police, Russian spies and defectors and all manner of unconstitutional murdering and other skullduggery carried out by the authorities. A lot of this is largely incomprehensible, but what it boils down to is that there is a faction within the Swedish police and secret services that would find it very convenient if Salander were to be either convicted of some of the killings carried out in the previous book (most of which were actually perpetrated by Niedermann), declared mentally incompetent and sent back to a secure institution, or, better still, both.

So there is some digging up of the past to be done. Salander herself would be a useful asset in this, of course, as she is a black-belt ninja stylee computer hacker, but infortunately she's in hospital recovering from having a bullet and various shards of skull dug out of her brain. Luckily she makes a remarkable recovery and, with the collusion of kindly brain surgeon Dr. Jonasson, manages to get hold of her PDA and get online. After warming up by identifying the weirdo who's been stalking former Millennium editor-in-chief and Blomkvist's on-off lover Erika Berger, she moves on to communicating with Blomkvist and her defence lawyer Annika Giannini (who just happens to be Blomkvist's sister, which is handy) about planning her upcoming defence.

However, those who were involved with the secret police and the Zalachenko shenanigans back in the day aren't keen to see justice take its natural course, and they're fiercely dedicated, as is demonstrated when the former head of the super-secret section of the secret police (the bit that's so secret even the rest of the secret police don't know about it) takes one for the team by popping a cap in Zalachenko's ass in his hospital bed and then shooting himself in the head. Fortunately for the good guys there's another super-secret police team investigating the nefarious activities of the first one, and these guys have the right colour hats on, particularly Amazonian fitness enthusiast and police inspector Monica Figuerola who proves (as most women do) susceptible to Blomkvist's rumpled charms and promptly starts sleeping with him.

So anyway, things come to a head at the trial, during the course of which it soon becomes clear that things aren't going to go the prosecution's way. Salander's lurid stories about being raped by her former guardian Nils Bjurman turn out to be true (fortunately she'd had the presence of mind to video the whole thing), and evil psychologist Peter Teleborian's damning assessment of Salander's mental state is undermined somewhat by the discovery of a monster stash of kiddy porn on his computer. The case is thrown out of court, Salander's previous convictions and judgments of mental incompetence are thrown out as well, and there is much rejoicing. Salander and Blomkvist finally bury the hatchet, and Berger gives her blessing to Blomkvist and Figuerola's relationship, though there's probably every chance that he'll be boning both Salander and Berger again before too long, the randy old goat.

It's a strange book, this, in some ways: we get the required resolution and catharsis, the good guys come up smelling of roses and the bad guys get either killed or thoroughly disgraced and banged up for a long stretch. But there are an awful lot of blind alleys which seem to serve no particular purpose other than to bulk out the book (and at 746 pages that seems a bit superfluous) - Berger's stalker, the whole business with the Vietnamese sweatshop producing the cheap toilets (which seems tacked on just to demonstrate that Millennium really does do investigative journalism, rather than just providing an office for Blomkvist to do his crimebusting from), lots of unnecessary background on people like the Kurdish hospital orderly that Blomkvist persuades to smuggle in a phone for Salander, that sort of thing. The big villains from the previous book don't feature all that much, either - Zalachenko gets unexpectedly rubbed out early on, and Niedermann, who rampaged through the second half of TGWPWF like a giant blond Terminator, disappears completely after escaping from police custody, and only turns up right at the end for a climactic confrontation with Salander that feels like a bit of an afterthought. There isn't a lot of grey between the heroes and the villains, either - some of the good guys are given a few quirky traits just to make them more interesting, but the bad guys lapse into cartoonish supervillainy on occasion; not content with having Peter Teleborian be corrupt and unscrupulous, for instance, he apparently has to be a predatory paedophile as well, just in case we start sympathising with him.

I suppose the general conclusion is that Larsson could have done with a bit of revising and pruning and the attentions of a stern editor; obviously his being dead made that a bit tricky. There were rumours of more books in the pipeline, but to be honest I think three is enough - by which I mean: if there are more I may well feel obliged to read them, but I will feel vaguely resentful while doing so.

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