conventionally unconventional: a review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Now that the flurry of reviews on the US release of the third volume of the Millennium Trilogy have died down, I’m finally getting around to writing my own review. What can I possibly add? Nothing, really, but the publisher sent me an advanced reader copy, I enjoyed it, and I thought I’d try to explain why. I’m going to do it without spoilers, a magic trick I will perform by not describing the plot at all. (Ta dah!) Instead, I’ll focus on why I think this book, and the entire trilogy, works for so many readers.

A recently-translated interview of the author made it clear that Larsson was very familiar with contemporary crime fiction. He read it, he reviewed it, he had decided personal tastes, citing Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters as particularly praiseworthy–all women writers who don’t aim for trimmed-down, action-driven stories, but who have a fascination with character development or social issues – or both. Though his work has been criticized for violating readers’ expectations – the narrative takes leisurely detours at the expense of sustained suspense, there are more details about what Salander bought to furnish her apartment or what characters ate for dinner than “how to write mysteries” books advise – its flaws didn’t prevent it from getting published and gaining a passionate international audience. What made it such a success?

The obvious answer is the Girl of the English-translation titles, a character who grabs scenes and runs away with them. This tattooed waif, who can solve complex mathematical theorems, hack into banking records and make herself rich while kick-boxing her way out of life-threatening situations, has millions of fans. Yet Lisbeth Salander is in many ways unoriginal. For years the hacker as a form of deus ex machina has been a bit of a cliché in the genre. The lonely woman warrior who overcomes personal adversity and female role models to battle evil with extraordinary martial arts skills has appeared in lots of crime fiction, though I imagine she first served an apprenticeship in comics and movies. The socially tone-deaf but mathematically brilliant autist dates back to Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man, an “idiot savant” version of autism that annoys people with autism who are often expected to be capable of freakishly brilliant parlor tricks. Currently it’s fashionable to think that almost anyone who lacks social graces is “on the spectrum.”

(An aside: Blomqvist speculates that Salander may be autistic, but her behavior doesn’t bear out his theory. Though she doesn’t feel compelled to follow standard social cues and sometimes seems puzzled by other people’s emotional expectations, her independence from convention is a combination of personal choice and a traumatic childhood. She missed the usual early lessons in socialization, growing up in a home defined by extreme domestic violence, then while still quite young was isolated in an abusive mental hospital. Once she achieved her freedom, it was her choice to embrace brutal honesty rather than practice the white lies of social convention, lies that kept people from seeing the abuses she was subject to. She joined a community of outlaw hackers, responded unflinchingly to hypocrisy or injustice, and was guarded about whom to trust. Those are symptoms of a healthy response to abuse, not of autism).

Larsson managed to draw on crime fiction motifs and traditions to take his crusading journalism into a storytelling realm where he could play with the issues and conflicts that were his daily bread as a leftist journalist. In the final volume of the trilogy (one that wasn’t meant to be final, but does feel satisfyingly complete), Larsson adds two more subgenres to his palette.

In the first book, he combined an old-fashioned puzzle inside a family saga that took a sharp turn into a thriller plot, with sexual deviants who could be at home in a James Patterson novel (if they shed their cultural and political referents). In the second volume, the pacing is definitely that of a thriller, in which one of the lead characters is accused of murder and has to uncover a political conspiracy to clear her name, ending with an extended action sequence and a cliffhanger. The third volume combines espionage motifs with the trappings of a legal thriller. Larsson was not only familiar with the various forms the genre could take, he was trying them all out, as scornful of being boxed in by convention as his heroine.

But it’s not just the characters and plot devices that make the pages turn faster. Neither the plot elements nor the main characters are original. It’s Larsson’s earnest playfulness – or is it playful earnestness? – that distinguishes the trilogy. Salander begins as a bundle of clichés, but as her story is revealed and we are allowed to see the world from her point of view, she  becomes a human being, one who may have superpowers, but who is compelling because of her humanity. Blomqvist is equally a pastiche of male wish-fulfillment: studly, driven, professionally accomplished and irresistible to women, but it is the way he clutches his moral compass for guidance as he dashes around the twists of the plot that makes him heroic.

Larsson was blunt about his commercial motives in turning to crime fiction. He thought they would be popular and would provide him with the financial stability that progressive journalism wouldn’t. But rather than study the market to produce something that met consumer expectations, he borrowed from formulas like a magpie, building a massive pastiche of the genre, infusing it with his political and social passions. The books are fun, they are entertaining, and they are bristling with righteousness. It’s a rare combination, but in his unconventionally conventional way, he found what readers seem to crave: heroes who make seeking justice into an adventure.

The third volume concludes on a hopeful note. Evil, it turns out, is not the result of fundamental flaws in social institutions, nor is it the work of unredeemable monsters who live among us and may attack at any time. The wrongs Salander suffered were caused by individuals making bad choices; within the same institutions, other individuals did the right thing, led by a strong woman who refuses to be a victim and a crusading journalist who can turn evil into a great scoop. I think it’s that combination of seriousness and optimism, of adventure and conviction, that innocent faith that ethical people can tell a story that exposes evil and makes things right, is what resonated with readers all over the world.

Review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Now that the flurry of reviews after the US release of the third volume of the Millennium Trilogy has already been published, I’m finally getting around to writing my own review. What can I possibly add? Nothing, really, but the publisher sent me an advanced reader copy, I enjoyed it, and I thought I’d try to explain why. I’m going to try and do it without spoilers, a magic trick I will perform by not describing the plot at all. (Ta dah!)

A recently-translated interview of the author made it clear that Larsson was very familiar with contemporary crime fiction. He read it, he reviewed it, he had decided personal tastes, citing Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters as particularly praiseworthy. Though his work has been criticized for violating readers’ expectations—the narrative takes leisurely detours at the expense of sustained suspense, there are more details about what Salander bought to furnish her apartment or what characters ate for dinner than “how to write mysteries” books advise—its flaws didn’t prevent it from gaining a passionate international audience. What made it such a success?

The obvious answer is the Girl of the English-translation titles, a character who grabs scenes and runs away with them. This tattooed waif, who can solve complex mathematical theorems, hack into banking records and make herself rich while kick-boxing her way out of life-threatening situations, has millions of fans. Yet Lisbeth Salander is in many ways unoriginal. For years the hacker as a form of deus ex machina has been a bit of a cliché in the genre. The lonely woman warrior who overcomes personal adversity and female role models to battle evil aided by extraordinary martial arts skills has appeared in lots of crime fiction, though I imagine she first served an apprenticeship in comics and movies. The socially tone-deaf but mathematically brilliant autist dates back to Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man; that “idiot savant” version of autism annoys people with autism who are expected to be capable of freakishly brilliant parlor tricks—and currently almost anyone who lacks social graces is suspected of being “on the spectrum.”

(An aside: Blomqvist speculates that Salander may be autistic, but her behavior doesn’t bear out his theory. Though she doesn’t feel a need to follow standard social cues and sometimes seems puzzled by other people’s emotional expectations, her independence from convention is a combination of personal choice and a traumatic childhood. She missed the usual early lessons in socialization, growing up in a home defined by extreme domestic violence, then while still quite young was isolated in an abusive mental hospital. Once she achieved her freedom, it was her choice to embrace brutal honesty. Rather than practice the white lies of social convention, lies that kept people from seeing the abuses she was subject to, she joined a community of outlaw hackers and responded unflinchingly to hypocrisy or injustice and was guarded about whom to trust. Those are symptoms of a healthy response to abuse, not of autism).

Larsson managed to draw on crime fiction motifs and traditions to take his crusading journalism into a storytelling realm where he could play with the issues and conflicts that were his daily bread as a leftist journalist. In the final volume of the trilogy (one that wasn’t meant to be final, but does wrap up enough ends to feel satisfyingly complete), Larsson adds two more subgenres to his palette. In the first book, he combined an old-fashioned puzzle inside a family saga that took a sharp turn into a thriller plot, with sexual deviants who could be at home in a James Patterson novel (if they shed their cultural and political referents). In the second volume, the pacing is definitely that of a thriller, in which one of the lead characters is accused of murder and has to uncover a political conspiracy to clear her name, ending with an action sequence and a cliffhanger. The third volume combines espionage motifs with the conventions of a legal thriller. Larsson was not only familiar with the various forms the genre could take, he was trying them all out, as scornful of being boxed in by convention as his heroine.

But it’s not just the characters and plot devices that make the pages turn faster. Neither the plot elements nor the main characters are original. It’s Larsson’s earnest playfulness—or is it playful earnestness?—that distinguishes the trilogy. Salander begins as a bundle of clichés, but as her story is revealed and we are allowed to see the world from her point of view, she  becomes a human being who may have superpowers, but who is compelling because of her humanity. Blomqvist is equally a pastiche of male wish-fulfillment: studly, driven, professionally accomplished and irresistible to women, but it is the way he clutches his moral compass for guidance as he dashes around the twists of the plot that makes him heroic.

Larsson was blunt about his commercial motives in turning to crime fiction. He thought they would be popular and would provide him with the financial stability that progressive journalism wouldn’t. But rather than study the market to produce something that met consumer expectations, he borrowed from formulas like a magpie, building a massive pastiche of the genre that’s infused with his political and social passions. The books are fun, they are entertaining, and they are bristling with righteousness. It’s a rare combination, but in his messy, unconventionally conventional way, he found what readers seem to crave: heroes who make seeking justice into an adventure.

The third volume concludes on a hopeful note. Evil, it turns out, is not the result of fundamental flaws in social institutions, nor is it the work of unredeemable monsters who live among us and may attack at any time. The wrongs Salander suffered were caused by individuals making choices; within the same institutions, other individuals did the right thing, led by a powerful woman who refuses to be a victim and a crusading journalist who has to get the story, who has the skill to turn evil into a great scoop. I think it’s that combination of seriousness and optimism, that old-fashioned faith that ethical people can tell a story that exposes evil and makes things right, is what resonated with readers all over the world.

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7 thoughts on “conventionally unconventional: a review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

  1. I just love this review of the Millenium trilogy and your analysis of Lizbeth Salander. There is nothing more I can say, well, maybe I can but I have to think about this. At last Salander is vindicated. (If I read one more article criticizing her or categorizing her, especially by male reviewers, I’ll scream.)
    A woman friend who just finished the 3rd book, loved them. Why? Because she loved Salander’s character; she called her “drop-dead brilliant, independent and courageous.” What more can I add? (I’m sending her this review.)

  2. I agree with kathy d. Very insightful review. But I don’t agree about the autistic angle. For one, Stieg himself said Lisbeth has Asperger Syndrome. And there is so much more to AS than text book traits, which means that in her own way Lisbeth fits it very well. Even outsiders form groups where they can continue being outsiders. And her support group of hackers don’t have to be aspies themselves.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Kathy, you and I are on the same page when it comes to strong women leads, and I’m happy that so many people have responded positively to Salander; I think it’s a good sign (and Larsson was brilliant in the way he constructed the character). As for the Asperger’s issue, I think I’m just a little over-sensitive to the current tendency to say that anyone who doesn’t behave in a prescribed and acceptable social manner must be autistic. Or anyone who’s clever but a little unusual is an Aspie. I’ve nothing against Lisbeth being an Aspie; I certainly don’t want to appear as if I think Aspies couldn’t be as skilled as Lisbeth. I just think it’s become a new label for people who rebel against social convention. A kind of medicalization of difference that makes me nervous, as if there must be a medical explanation (and possibly a “cure”) for people who don’t behave in expected ways.

  4. Barbara,

    I agree with you again. A woman who is brilliant with many talents and skills, including at math, finances and computers, may just be brilliant. Many are. That she is somewhat isolated and mistrustful of others and finds it hard to relate may just be the result of her years of physical, mental and psychological abuse and torture.

    That she stands up for herself and fights back rather than spending her life curled up in a fetal position in an institution (which could happen to many as a result of what her character went through) may be unusual but it’s healthier than the alternative. At least she gets to live her life instead of giving up.

  5. Barbara,

    I agree with you again. A woman who is brilliant with many talents and skills, including at math, finances and computers, may just be brilliant. Many are. That she is somewhat isolated and mistrustful of others and finds it hard to relate may just be the result of her years of physical, mental and psychological abuse and torture.

    That she stands up for herself and fights back rather than spending her life curled up in a fetal position in an institution (which could happen to many as a result of what her character went through) may be unusual but it’s healthier than the alternative. At least she gets to live her life instead of giving up.

    That she didn’t get any help, except from Blomkvist, is worse than tragic. (And I’m reading book III, so I know she will get help from Blomkvist’s sister but I’m barely there yet.)

  6. My apologies for inadvertently duplicating the message, although I added the bottom paragraph later. Sometimes posting gets a bit complicated.

  7. Cheers to the great women characters in TGWKTHN. A very good reason for loving the third book is the number of strong, brilliant, courageous, capable women characters, including Annika Giannini, Erica Berger, Monica Figueroa, Linder, etc. (as well as Salander, who helps her own case from a hospital room and helps Berger and later defends herself).

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