Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

I nearly gave up on this book at page 81.  Is it fair to begin reviewing a book when I've read less than 100 pages?  However, I did stick with it and in the end it was worth reading, if you like this sort of thing.   I read the first in this series last summer, and I found it to be an intriguing, fast read, even though some of the subject matter was a little icky.  Why must so many thrillers have sex crimes?  It's getting really tiresome.  I'm not against a good murder mystery, but it seems to me that they're getting more and more gruesome, like the authors are trying to top one another (I blame Patricia Cornwell, even though I stopped reading her books ten years ago).

I tried to summarize these books but just couldn't.  Basically, there's a Swedish investigative journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, and Lisbeth Salaner, the brilliant but troubled computer hacker he hires to help research a big expose.  Their lives become intertwined while exposing lots of financial, corporate, and political scandals.  Oh, and there are some unpleasant sex crimes. 

I can understand why the first book in this series was such an international sensation, and even the second had some good bits in it, though I didn't like it as much as the first.  (Though in retrospect I'm not even sure I liked it -- I just couldn't stop reading it and had to find out what happened, which probably doesn't even make sense).  I'd been on the waiting list for this book from the library for quite awhile, and I needed to read it before I went on vacation -- no way I'd have been able to renew it with another hundred people waiting for it).

But the first 100 pages of this book didn't seem to be going anywhere.  Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl in the title, is slowly recovering in the hospital after being shot and buried alive (!), and lots of people with confusing names are discussing what they're going to do about it -- journalists, cops, government types, and various criminal organizations.  I think the problem may be that it's been several months since I read the previous installment, and I was pretty confused.  Maybe I should have taken notes the first time around -- could it be a problem with the names, which are, of course, mostly Swedish?   But seriously, there are so many characters, and the names are really confusing.  And unlike many other series books, this book did not go back and remind the reader who in the heck all these people are -- it picked up immediately after the first book, assuming that either the reader had just finished the previous book or has a stellar memory (like Lisbeth.)  For example -- there are two bad guys in the same organization named Nieminen and Niedermann! I feel guilty about mixing them all up -- does this make me a stupid American?  [I felt much better after I read Nora Ephron's hilarious essay in the New Yorker, The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut.]

I finally got through this book by basically skimming all the parts where Larsson is trying to explain the history of the Swedish secret service/spy agencies with lots of political stuff, which I found really dry. (Since I skipped most of this I'm not quite sure if he's actually incorporating real political events in his book or just giving the reader some historical context.  There are actually endnotes.)  Anyway, the book really does get better when Lisbeth starts to recover and by convoluted methods is actually able to start hacking again while in the hospital under police guard.  She's not even supposed to have a pencil, but because she is a super badass and has friends who are willing to break lots of laws, she's able to hack into all kinds of secret files to create her defense, which is great because otherwise she'd have nothing to do while basically a prisoner in a hospital.   Larsson must have finally realized that she's by far the most interesting character, much more than the other one, the sexy investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (even though the requisite women are still  jumping into bed with him in a heartbeat.  Ho hum.)

Even though I'm disturbed by some of the misogyny in these books, I have to point out that there are some good strong female characters.  Even though yet another female character is subject to some nasty humiliation about her sex life (which I found totally unnecessary), Larsson introduces two new great characters, a tough but sexy secret agent, Monica Figueroa, and a tough, sexy security consultant, Susanne Linder.  And Blomkvist's sister has quite a big role as Lisbeth's defense lawyer -- she's also tough and brilliant.  (And since she's Blomkvist's sister, I assume she's also sexy).  If Larsson hadn't died so unexpectedly, I would have liked to see spin-off series with any of these characters.


  1. I had a very similar experience reading this one - I couldn't keep all of the names straight! I also found some parts dry and almost gave up on it.

  2. Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article, I have not read the books but that was hysterical... not sure it tempted me to read them though.
    much love

  3. You ask - is it fair to review a book when you've not read it all? I say yes, but to make a note that it was a did not finish book. Some people put DNF in their post titles or somewhere in the post. I always put "Abandoned book" in my title and note it that way. I don' do this for all books I give up on because it's simply not worth the time - just books that I made significant headway with and then decided I couldn't go on. Like reading 300+ pages of Udolpho.

  4. Mynovelreviews -- I feel better knowing others have had a similar reaction. Sometimes I feel like one of those self-centered Americans if foreign names confuse me. I had the same problem a few months ago with a French novel. And Russians are pretty challenging since they all have two or three nicknames! My book group is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in October and I've heard several characters have the same name -- I'll have to take notes.

    Martine -- if you like thrillers, it's worth reading, because Lisbeth is such an interesting character. I thought the first one was pretty gripping. The last one is definitely slower paced, though there's some pretty good courtroom stuff. Some nasty sex crimes, though not as bad as the first two.

    Amanda -- If I can make it through 100 pages of a book, I usually finish it. Sometimes I have too many books going and I end up giving up on one or more. I had actually written almost a full review when I hit a low point at page 81, but I skipped the boring stuff and it got better.

  5. I thought the pacing was terrible--200 pages of chess game that really never pans out, lots of info dumping, about 100 pages of good plot and scenes, and then another 75 of boring. The only unanswered thread I care about is "Where is Camilla Salander, and what's her crime/secret power?"

  6. Kerry, you're right -- it wasn't so much the content as the pacing of the book. And info dumping is a good way to describe it. I suspect this book wasn't exactly finished, it seemed more like a draft to me. Parts of it were really boring and there were some other unanswered questions, like that psycho that disappeared -- what was he up to the whole time?

    I wonder if Camilla was going to be addressed in a future book. I think Larsson's girlfriend has part of a manuscript but she's fighting his family over a lot of stuff. Bit article in the NY Times Sunday magazine about it a couple of months ago.

  7. I want to read these books and even have the first two, but I've been hesitant because of all the violence I've heard these books have. I read a lot of crime novels (though I'm afraid I never could get into Patricia Cornwell's books--I don't like gory), but there is something about misogynistic violence that's very nasty and uncomfortable. Still, I am sure I'll read these at some point.

  8. Danielle, the violence, particularly against women, made me pretty uncomfortable at times (I'm told the Swedish movie adaptations are pretty graphic). I had to skip parts of them. But Larsson did write some really interesting strong female characters. I don't know if this makes up for the violence against women, though.

  9. I have two things to thank you for. First, after reading your review I know won't be wasting my time reading these books, which I was actually considering because I love the titles and found them intriguing. Second, the Nora Ephron spoof was wonderful--made me smile and I was too tired from the day to smile much this evening.

    Thanks. And as an expression of my appreciation, I hereby award you The Versatile Blogger Award :)

    Stop over at my blog for details, etc.

  10. Thanks Jane! Sorry to take so long to reply, I've been on vacation and had very limited computer access. Did get lots of reading done though! :-)