From Sarah Weinman's "THE CRIMINALIST" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
By now, the narrative of Stieg Larsson is well-established to the point of near-myth. So it goes with a bona fide cultural phenomenon whose creator did not live to see the truly global success of the Millennium Trilogy. The surrounding legal drama between Larsson's longtime partner and family owing to his lack of a will, the excellent movie adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the glut of articles about the Nordic crime boom, and the new and forthcoming release of several biographies all underscore and obfuscate the bottom line: these three books resonate for millions of readers as few thrillers do. They -- like me -- are so hooked that the prospect of an end to the series produces low-to-mid-range frustration. To misquote Samuel Beckett, there can't be more. There must be more. There is no more.
The best way to explain this inevitable reaction is to start with the last hundred or so pages of The Girl Who Kicks the Hornet's Nest, which finally arrives on American soil. Lisbeth Salander, having endured all manner of violence, humiliation, suffering, and degradation with revenge-soaked stoicism for just over half of her twenty-seven years on earth, is on trial for trying to kill her father, the Russian defector and Swedish national security nightmare Alexander Zalachenko. Her solicitor is Annika Gianinni, a feminist crusader and sister to the trilogy's other main protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist. They face a cavalry of aging men desperate to hang on to their powerful positions and crush Salander's spirit through every conspiratorial means possible, from declarations of mental incapacitation to trumped-up murder charges that can't quite stick (so attempted murder will have to suffice.)
The outcome is obvious to the reader, because Larsson, throughout the series, has conformed to the mystery novel's chief structure: blinding chaos is restored to natural order, with some obligatory loose strands left to dangle for the next book. But what he has also done, brilliantly, is to use the chaos/order dichotomy as a means of mining more ancient archetypes revolving around catharsis. Salander is any mythical or larger-than-life character you want her to be, from Diana the Huntress to females of Amazonian glory to Boadicea to Pippi Longstocking to Mallory, Carol O'Connell's glorious sociopathic heroine. She's the Bad Girl because others say she is, but really her misfit ways and fluid sexuality simply are, free from societal norms and judgments.
So -- and I guess this counts as a spoiler -- Salander prevails. But we've known she would from the moment she first appeared in her former boss's office, slapping down the dossier she compiled on Blomqvist and blithely commenting that he must have been set up by the financier, Wennerström -- the villain eventually brought down through a mix of hackery and trickery by Salander and Blomqvist. But the breathtaking glory of those final sections of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the systematic thoroughness of Salander's triumph.
Men will continue to hate women, and to box them in and shut them down; the rich will hoard their wealth and the poor will be trapped. But the events chronicled in those hundred pages, the culmination of the several hundred thousand words preceding, imagine a small but vital change to the game. If one elfin, multi-tattooed, take-no-prisoners, socially withdrawn young woman can beat the system -- definitively and with several blows struck in the name of some turbo-charged form of Girl Power -- surely millions of others facing more mundane but more devastating insults and injustices can also prevail?
But enough about the end. Some justice must be done on the book's entirety, after all, and why The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest caps the trilogy so well. First off is Larsson's knack for building, maintaining, and then explosively increasing the momentum even as he barrels through what could be some turgid expository dumps. Did we need to know every little bit of backstory on peripheral members of the so-called "Zalachenko Club" responsible for circumventing the constitution and screwing over Salander to a life under the government's thumb? No, but just when one might throw up one's hands, along comes a vital chess move through the byzantine plot that might come in handy later on. And like his colleague in blockbusters, Dan Brown, Larsson's enthusiasm for the information he spills out, be it on the annals of his country's darkest political crimes or the specs of the computer Salander works with, is infectious. Did you know how cool this is? he asks. We did not, but now we do -- and yeah, it is pretty cool.
That leads into the second point: the Millennium Trilogy is mecca for the twin nerdy pursuits of journalism and technology. Larsson idealized journalism too much and spent too little on getting the inner workings of computer hacking right, but the net effect in both cases is that the 2010's reality super-imposes itself on the 2003-2005 world depicted in the books. The effects of that juxtaposition are somewhat different. With respect to journalism, bloggers toiling at pennies per post if they are lucky after being downsized from cushier newspaper and magazine jobs look to Millennium (Blomqvist's baby) and SMP (where his partner Erika migrates to save a sinking ship) as the personification of the "good old days," when dogged investigation and commitment to quality, not page views, was rewarded most.
Technology is another story. Gadgets date quickly, and Salander's reliance on a Palm Tungsten 3T to communicate with Blomqvist in stealth while supposedly sequestered from the world in a hospital shoehorns the action to late 2004/early 2005. Would the plot have been poleaxed by the presence of a smartphone, or by the likelihood of incriminating videos ending up on YouTube with a single click? Perhaps, but with recent privacy-busting actions by the post-Larsson behemoth Facebook (or Google, hardly as formidable then as it is now) and surveillance-happy governments in all likely and unlikely corners, I reckon Larsson might have figured out additional ways around the plausibility problem -- or blithely ignored them altogether since truth trumps fiction for bizarreness.
Such considerations remind one that these books, with all their violence and modern accoutrements, are wonderfully old-fashioned. Salander spends the bulk of Hornet's Nest trapped in a hospital bed, in jail, or in a stifling room answering to so-called crimes or watching, impassively, as her lawyer annihilates former tormentors and exposes their own perversions. And yet she is still the most active investigator of the truth in the story, able to accomplish what experienced journalists or government officials cannot. Those key figures also must use their wits -- as well as some well-placed information here and there, illegally obtained or not -- and deduce the impossible truth of Salander's victimhood from more plausible but flat wrong suppositions of guilt. Blomqvist may get much more action than his forefather in crime, Sherlock Holmes, but the principles are much the same.
Finally, to quote Blomqvist, "when it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and those who enable it." Sex, in other words, is the big red herring, and I think that's why Larsson had the license to stretch the boundaries a bit. Because it doesn't matter if Blomqvist has women constantly flocking to him (in Hornet's Nest the quite unnecessary amorous episodes feature the near-Olympian turned secret agent Monika Figuerola), or if his long-running relationship with the married Berger is the best depiction of polyamory in fiction I've read, or if Salander sleeps with both men and women. Sex is private, borne out of love or desire or other more complicated emotions. Violence, be it body blows or brutal rape, is a public problem to be aired out so as to eradicate it for good.
Such was Larsson's hope, anyway. He wouldn't have lived to see the end of violence against women even if he was still alive today with thirty more years to go. But the three finished novels he left behind attest to idealism on many fronts: that journalism was a social service, that technology was a positive force for good, and that violence was a scourge both could vanquish. We're so far away from these goals that to read about them in the form of three supremely entertaining thrillers is escapism and catharsis of the highest order. And each subsequent generation will get sucked into Larsson's world anew, ready to fight alongside Blomqvist and Salander.
Read an Excerpt
Friday, April 8
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.
"What?" he said, confused.
"Rescue Service helicopter coming in. Two patients. An injured man and a younger woman. The woman has a gunshot wound."
"All right," Jonasson said wearily.
Although he had slept for only half an hour, he felt groggy. He was on the night shift in the ER at Sahlgrenska hospital in Göteborg. It had been a strenuous evening.
By 12:30 the steady flow of emergency cases had eased off. He had made a round to check on the state of his patients and then gone back to the staff bedroom to try to rest for a while. He was on duty until 6:00, and seldom got the chance to sleep even if no emergency patients came in. But this time he had fallen asleep almost as soon as he turned out the light.
Jonasson saw lightning out over the sea. He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window. The storm had moved in over Göteborg.
He heard the sound of the chopper and watched as it banked through the storm squalls down towards the helipad. For a second he held his breath when the pilot seemed to have difficulty controlling the aircraft. Then it vanished from his field of vision and he heard the engine slowing to land. He took a hasty swallow of his tea and set down the cup.
Jonasson met the emergency team in the admissions area. The other doctor on duty took on the first patient who was wheeled in-an elderly man with his head bandaged, apparently with a serious wound to the face. Jonasson was left with the second patient, the woman who had been shot. He did a quick visual examination: it looked like she was a teenager, very dirty and bloody, and severely wounded. He lifted the blanket that the Rescue Service had wrapped around her body and saw that the wounds to her hip and shoulder were bandaged with duct tape, which he considered a pretty clever idea. The tape kept bacteria out and blood in. One bullet had entered her hip and gone straight through the muscle tissue. He gently raised her shoulder and located the entry wound in her back. There was no exit wound: the round was still inside her shoulder. He hoped it had not penetrated her lung, and since he did not see any blood in the woman's mouth he concluded that probably it had not.
"Radiology," he told the nurse in attendance. That was all he needed to say.
Then he cut away the bandage that the emergency team had wrapped around her skull. He froze when he saw another entry wound. The woman had been shot in the head, and there was no exit wound there either.
Jonasson paused for a second, looking down at the girl. He felt dejected. He often described his job as being like that of a goalkeeper. Every day people came to his place of work in varying conditions but with one objective: to get help.
Jonasson was the goalkeeper who stood between the patient and Fonus Funeral Service. His job was to decide what to do. If he made the wrong decision, the patient might die or perhaps wake up disabled for life. Most often he made the right decision, because the vast majority of injured people had an obvious and specific problem. A stab wound to the lung or a crushing injury after a car crash were both particular and recognizable problems that could be dealt with. The survival of the patient depended on the extent of the damage and on Jonasson's skill.
There were two kinds of injury that he hated. One was a serious burn case, because no matter what measures he took the burns would almost inevitably result in a lifetime of suffering. The second was an injury to the brain.
The girl on the gurney could live with a piece of lead in her hip and a piece of lead in her shoulder. But a piece of lead inside her brain was a trauma of a wholly different magnitude. He was suddenly aware of the nurse saying something.
"Sorry. I wasn't listening."
"What do you mean?"
"It's Lisbeth Salander. The girl they've been hunting for the past few weeks, for the triple murder in Stockholm."
Jonasson looked again at the unconscious patient's face. He realized at once that the nurse was right. He and the whole of Sweden had seen Salander's passport photograph on billboards outside every newspaper kiosk for weeks. And now the murderer herself had been shot, which was surely poetic justice of a sort.
But that was not his concern. His job was to save his patient's life, irrespective of whether she was a triple murderer or a Nobel Prize winner. Or both.
Then the efficient chaos, the same in every ER the world over, erupted. The staff on Jonasson's shift set about their appointed tasks. Salander's clothes were cut away. A nurse reported on her blood pressure-100/70-while the doctor put his stethoscope to her chest and listened to her heartbeat. It was surprisingly regular, but her breathing was not quite normal.
Jonasson did not hesitate to classify Salander's condition as critical. The wounds in her shoulder and hip could wait until later, with a compress on each, or even with the duct tape that some inspired soul had applied. What mattered was her head. Jonasson ordered tomography with the new and improved CT scanner that the hospital had lately acquired.
Jonasson had a view of medicine that was at times unorthodox. He thought doctors often drew conclusions that they could not substantiate. This meant that they gave up far too easily; alternatively, they spent too much time at the acute stage trying to work out exactly what was wrong with the patient so as to decide on the right treatment. This was correct procedure, of course. The problem was that the patient was in danger of dying while the doctor was still doing his thinking.
But Jonasson had never before had a patient with a bullet in her skull. Most likely he would need a brain surgeon. He had all the theoretical knowledge required to make an incursion into the brain, but he did not by any means consider himself a brain surgeon. He felt inadequate, but all of a sudden he realized that he might be luckier than he deserved. Before he scrubbed up and put on his operating clothes he sent for the nurse.
"There's an American professor from Boston working at the Karolinska hospital in Stockholm. He happens to be in Göteborg tonight, staying at the Radisson on Avenyn. He just gave a lecture on brain research. He's a good friend of mine. Could you get the number?"
While Jonasson was still waiting for the X-rays, the nurse came back with the number of the Radisson. Jonasson picked up the phone. The night porter at the Radisson was very reluctant to wake a guest at that time of night and Jonasson had to come up with a few choice phrases about the critical nature of the situation before his call was put through.
"Good morning, Frank," Jonasson said when the call was finally answered. "It's Anders. Do you feel like coming over to Sahlgrenska to help out in a brain op?"
"Are you bullshitting me?" Dr. Frank Ellis had lived in Sweden for many years and was fluent in Swedish-albeit with an American accent- but when Jonasson spoke to him in Swedish, Ellis always replied in his mother tongue.
"The patient is in her mid-twenties. Entry wound, no exit."
"And she's alive?"
"Weak but regular pulse, less regular breathing, blood pressure one hundred over seventy. She also has a bullet wound in her shoulder and another in her hip. But I know how to handle those two."
"Sounds promising," Ellis said.
"If somebody has a bullet in their head and they're still alive, that points to hopeful."
"I understand... Frank, can you help me out?"
"I spent the evening in the company of good friends, Anders. I got to bed at 1:00 and no doubt I have an impressive blood alcohol content."
"I'll make the decisions and do the surgery. But I need somebody to tell me if I'm doing anything stupid. Even a falling-down drunk Professor Ellis is several classes better than I could ever be when it comes to assessing brain damage."
"OK, I'll come. But you're going to owe me one."
"I'll have a taxi waiting outside by the time you get down to the lobby. The driver will know where to drop you, and a nurse will be there to meet you and get you scrubbed in."
"I had a patient a number of years ago, in Boston-I wrote about the case in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was a girl the same age as your patient here. She was walking to the university when someone shot her with a crossbow. The arrow entered at the outside edge of her left eyebrow and went straight through her head, exiting from almost the middle of the back of her neck."
"And she survived?"
"She looked like nothing on earth when she came in. We cut off the arrow shaft and put her head in a CT scanner. The arrow went straight through her brain. By all known reckoning she should have been dead, or at least suffered such massive trauma that she would have been in a coma."
"And what was her condition?"
"She was conscious the whole time. Not only that; she was terribly frightened, of course, but she was completely rational. Her only problem was that she had an arrow through her skull."
"What did you do?"
"Well, I got the forceps and pulled out the arrow and bandaged the wounds. More or less."
"And she lived to tell the tale?"
"Obviously her condition was critical, but the fact is we could have sent her home the same day. I've seldom had a healthier patient."
Jonasson wondered whether Ellis was pulling his leg.
"On the other hand," Ellis went on, "I had a forty-two-year-old patient in Stockholm some years ago who banged his head on a windowsill. He began to feel sick immediately and was taken by ambulance to the ER. When I got to him he was unconscious. He had a small bump and a very slight bruise. But he never regained consciousness and died after nine days in intensive care. To this day I have no idea why he died. In the autopsy report, we wrote brain haemorrhage resulting from an accident, but not one of us was satisfied with that assessment. The bleeding was so minor, and located in an area that shouldn't have affected anything else at all. And yet his liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs shut down one after the other. The older I get, the more I think it's like a game of roulette. I don't believe we'll ever figure out precisely how the brain works." He tapped on the X-ray with a pen. "What do you intend to do?"
"I was hoping you would tell me."
"Let's hear your diagnosis."
"Well, first of all, it seems to be a small-calibre bullet. It entered at the temple, and then stopped about four centimetres into the brain. It's resting against the lateral ventricle. There's bleeding there."
"How will you proceed?"
"To use your terminology, get some forceps and extract the bullet by the same route it went in."
"Excellent idea. I would use the thinnest forceps you have."
"It's that simple?"
"What else can we do in this case? We could leave the bullet where it is, and she might live to be a hundred, but it's also a risk. She might develop epilepsy, migraines, all sorts of complaints. And one thing you really don't want to do is drill into her skull and then operate a year from now when the wound itself has healed. The bullet is located away from the major blood vessels. So I would recommend that you extract it, but?..."
"The bullet doesn't worry me so much. She's survived this far and that's a good omen for her getting through having the bullet removed too. The real problem is here." He pointed at the X-ray. "Around the entry wound you have all sorts of bone fragments. I can see at least a dozen that are a couple of millimetres long. Some are embedded in the brain tissue. That's what could kill her if you're not careful."
"Isn't that part of the brain associated with numbers and mathematical capacity?" Jonasson said.
Ellis shrugged. "Mumbo jumbo. I have no idea what these particular grey cells are for. You can only do your best. You operate. I'll look over your shoulder."
Mikael Blomkvist looked up at the clock and saw that it was just after 3:00 in the morning. He was handcuffed and increasingly uncomfortable. He closed his eyes for a moment. He was dead tired but running on adrenaline. He opened them again and gave the policeman an angry glare. Inspector Thomas Paulsson had a shocked expression on his face. They were sitting at a kitchen table in a white farmhouse called Gosseberga, somewhere near Nossebro. Blomkvist had heard of the place for the first time less than twelve hours earlier.
There was no denying the disaster that had occurred.
"Imbecile," Blomkvist said.
"Now, you listen here-"
"Imbecile," Blomkvist said again. "I warned you he was dangerous, for Christ's sake. I told you that you would have to handle him like a live grenade. He's murdered at least three people with his bare hands and he's built like a tank. And you send a couple of village policemen to arrest him as if he were some Saturday night drunk."
Blomkvist shut his eyes again, wondering what else could go wrong that night.
He had found Lisbeth Salander just after midnight. She was very badly wounded. He had sent for the police and the Rescue Service.
The only thing that had gone right was that he had persuaded them to send a helicopter to take the girl to Sahlgrenska hospital. He had given them a clear description of her injuries and the bullet wound in her head, and some bright spark at the Rescue Service got the message.
Even so, it had taken over half an hour for the Puma from the helicopter unit in Säve to arrive at the farmhouse. Blomkvist had gotten two cars out of the barn. He switched on their headlights to illuminate a landing area in the field in front of the house.
The helicopter crew and two paramedics had proceeded in a routine and professional manner. One of the medics tended to Salander while the other took care of Alexander Zalachenko, known locally as Karl Axel Bodin. Zalachenko was Salander’s father and her worst enemy. He had tried to kill her, but he had failed. Blomkvist had found him in the woodshed at the farm with a nasty- looking gash—probably from an axe—in his face and some shattering damage to one of his legs which Blomkvist did not bother to investigate.