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

If you haven't heard of Stieg Larsson, you must have been living on Mars for the past year or two. Not only does the Swedish author's Millennium trilogy top the bestseller charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but Swedish versions of the books have also been filmed. The first one, starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, has already been released to great acclaim. An American version is in the works, starring Carey Mulligan ( An Education) as Salander.

If, for some inexplicable reason, you haven't heard of the books or the movies, then you must surely have heard that Stieg Larsson himself died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 50 after handing in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

So what's all the fuss about? I must confess that I've never known what all the fuss was about Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other publishing phenomenon, so I'm probably the last person to ask. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, certainly, but I suspect it does have a lot to do with storytelling abilities, a bit to do with hype, and a lot to do with the "wow" or "must-have" factor that usually come into play with a new gadget like the iPad - or the iPhone before it. A few intriguing tidbits about the writer's life, or a little mystery surrounding his death, also don't do any harm.

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How does the Millennium trilogy measure up to the huge success it has achieved? Well, the quality of the writing is fine. Larsson was an investigative journalist who frequently took on Sweden's far right wing. His male protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is (surprise, surprise) an investigative journalist with an anti-right-wing agenda, working for a left-wing political magazine called Millennium.

As a character, though Blomkvist is a voracious womanizer, he is nonetheless a basically decent, honest, committed crusader, and very good at his job. The plots of the novels are gripping, occasionally violent and gruesome, and will certainly have you turning the pages, but they don't break much new ground. Serial killers, sex-trade trafficking and political cover-ups are their main stock in trade.

A superior page-turner that doesn't leave you feeling disgusted with yourself for not being able to put it down

What is unique to Larsson's world is the character of Lisbeth Salander, his young, punk, computer-hacking, antisocial, bisexual, fearless anti-heroine. Salander has been badly abused for most of her life, not only by her father but by doctors, lawyers, politicians and the police, the very people who were supposed to protect her. The extent of this abuse reaches deep into the recesses of Swedish society and politics and provides Larsson not only with the story arc of the whole trilogy, but also with many of his themes.

Salander is the victim who refuses to lie down and take it. Resourceful, secretive to the point of invisibility, capable of extreme violence herself when she feels it is merited, she animates all three novels and helps raise them well above the norm.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the series, has the Swedish title of Män som hattor kvinnor, which translates into Men Who Hate Women. The title is an apt summary of the story, but perhaps the idea to change it, and to continue the "Girl Who…" theme in the following two books was an inspired one in that it identifies Lisbeth Salander as the true heart, soul and conscience of the trilogy. The second book was The Girl Who Played With Fire, and now we have the third and final episode, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

There can be no plot summaries here. These books are not a series of crime novels in which the detective has a new adventure every time. Each book picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off and continues the story. One of the faults of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is that it spends far too much of its first 100 or so pages rehashing the previous two novels, but if I explained how or why, I would be spoiling far too much for the reader. We do need some reminding, as there are a number of complex threads involved, but a little editing would have gone a long way.

Nevertheless, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a superior page-turner that doesn't leave you feeling disgusted with yourself for not being able to put it down. It draws you into interesting characters and their world, the world of Blomkvist and his lover/editor Erika Berger, the staff at Millennium magazine, and Lisbeth Salander herself.

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Salander, however, remains very much an enigma. Perhaps we can never get really close to her because she is too damaged.

If you have read the first two books in this trilogy, then you will surely read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest without any recommendation from me. If you haven't read the first two, then run out and buy The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Summer is coming. I guarantee you will have finished all three by Labour Day.

Peter Robinson's latest book is a collection of short stories called The Price of Love.

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