- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2010

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST
By Stieg Larsson
Knopf, $27.95, 576 pages 

She’s back, that strange enigma of a woman with a dragon tattoo, who has played with fire, and in her latest adventure has kicked a hornet’s nest in Sweden’s national government. It may be the last time we will enjoy the story of the sphinx who is Lisbeth Salander, and it is difficult to imagine anyone who wouldn’t relish her adventures. Even close to death in the hospital, she remains a force to be reckoned with.

Mr. Larsson wrote three riveting thrillers before his untimely death, and it was a demonstration of his literary skill that he linked them together by one remarkable character. Lisbeth Salander is a unique and brilliant creature who still lives with the brutal pain of her childhood and her savage impulses of revenge. There was nothing in Salander’s world that was kind or gentle and what she grew into was predictable in its icy detachment and distrust of the human race.

Computers and Salander were made for each other, and the only people in whom she places faith are those with the kind of skills unimaginable to those who flounder helplessly with keyboards and programs. Only Salander could negotiate via a hand-held computer hidden in her hospital bed to save herself in a situation where her enemies reach to the highest levels of government. And only Salander could summon up the forces of the Hacker Republic, an “elite force” of computer wizards who liked nothing better than challenging corruption in power.

The author notes that even Salander “wondered why she who had such difficulty talking about herself with people of flesh and blood could blithely reveal her most intimate secrets to a bunch of completely unknown freaks on the Internet.” It is a reflection that offers deep insight into the steely mind and horrifying background of Salander. As she undergoes head surgery in a Swedish hospital, she has already survived being buried alive by her half brother Ronald Niederman, a mechanical monster of a man who cannot feel pain, and shot by her father, Karl Axel Boden.

It says something of Salander’s physical stamina that she hit her father on the head with an axe before collapsing and being rescued by Mikhail Blomkvist, a journalist who is one of her few friends. As she lies in the hospital, she is officially considered not a victim but a triple murderer on the run from the police who want nothing more than to try her for homicide. But Salander’s situation is far more complicated, and it is Blomkvist who struggles to unveil the facts of a conspiracy that involves Sapo, Sweden’s security police, arms dealing, and a remarkable degree of dirty work in very high places.

One of the players is Salander’s father, a former Russian agent who defected to the same line of work in Sweden. A man who beat his wife until she wound up in an asylum, he has never forgotten or forgiven his daughter Lisbeth who avenged her mother by crippling her father with a hand grenade.

Mr. Larsson writes a long and complicated plot, and the reader has to pay attention or go back to check on not having missed anything. But investigating Salander makes it worth it.

This is a young woman so friendless, so distrustful of people that she even rejects the friendship of Blomkvist, the man who saved her life and who is trying to help her prove her innocence to those in law enforcement with a vested interest in proving her guilty. Blomkvist is described by one of the few principled police officers in the novel as “a shameless journalist bastard and insane private investigator who just might know what he is talking about.”

The fact that Blomkvist has a prominent magazine as a vehicle to disclose what he knows makes him even more dangerous. Blomkvist himself barely survives the forces marshaled against him, and it is only when the Swedish prime minister becomes an ally that the sinister activities of forces within the secret police are halted.

Yet for all of its convoluted subplots, the book revolves around Salander, one of the most fascinating characters to emerge in crime fiction in years. Her remoteness and her capacity for anger and violence are in contrast with a desperate vulnerability that she reveals only to the most unlikely of people.

In the end, recovered from her injuries and exonerated of the charges against her, Salander hasn’t changed. She still has vengeance on her mind, and her remaining target is her evil half brother who buried her and left her for dead. The fact that she dug herself out of a grave and went on to commit an axe assault probably tells you all you need to know about the tenacity of the young woman. She sets out on the trail of Niederman and of course she finds him. It turns out he has been waiting for her.

This is a family that knows how to carry a grudge. All he wants in life is to kill his little sister and she feels the same way about him. There is no doubt which of them will survive although the results verge on the incredible, and Salander now has a life without persecution to look forward to. But when she goes home to her sprawling apartment where only three rooms are furnished, the doorbell rings and she knows it can only be Blomkvist, who tells her, “I’m a good friend who’s visiting a good friend. If I’m welcome, that is.”

Salander reflects that she has spent two years avoiding this man and it troubles her that he is one of the few people she trusted. Yet the pivot on which her ultimate decision rests is that it no longer hurts her to see him. That is why “she opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.