In the past few weeks, I’ve had girls back-to-back-back. By “had,” of course, I mean “read” and by “girls,” I mean the three thrillers in Steig Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy:” The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the newly-published finale, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The Swedish page-turners have become international bestsellers — posthumously, since Larsson died of a heart attack shortly after submitting the three manuscripts to his publisher. All three books share protagonists and Larsson's penchant for convoluted plots and editorializing against his pet peeves. Larsson attacks misogyny in all three books, but he's no P.C. prude, and his uninhibited heroes have so much sex, it's amazing any time or energy left over for the sleuthing. All three books have been adapted into Swedish films, and a Hollywood take on the first is in the works. But if you could only read one, which should it be?
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Thumbnail sketch: Disgraced Millennium magazine journalist Mikael “Kalle” Bloomkvist (who seems suspiciously similar to Larsson himself) meets sexy, antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander, who helps him uncover a family's dirty secret that spans generations. For good measure, Salander seeks to clear Bloomkvist's name from a libel scandal.
Genres at play: When Bloomkvist and Salander dig into the century-spanning history of the powerful, scandal-plagued Vanger family, the book evokes the generational whodunits of Ross Macdonald. Bloomkvist’s leisure reading could be a list of Larsson’s mystery influences for the book, including Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. In all three books, the details of Salander’s computer piracy prove comparable to the technothrillers of Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy, only anchored by an interesting female character.
Ridiculous contrivance: The instigating disappearance — or was it murder? — took place on the Vanger's private island in the mid-1960s, where a traffic accident on the only bridge to the mainland engineered the equivalent of a “locked room” mystery.
Author’s pet peeve: Larsson unloads on financial journalists with too-cozy relationships to their sources.
Lingering question: Why is one of the elderly Vangers the only "bad" female character in the trilogy? The rest are either victims or heroines, but Larsson seemed to have a blind spot when creating female villains.
Judgment: Not bad, but Vanger family’s biographical details all blur together and the book’s genealogy table doesn’t help much. Nevertheless, Salander makes an instantly intriguing protagonist. A quirk of all three books is that frequently, the characters’ texting and email exchanges come to life more vividly than face-to-face conversations.
Disclaimer: I saw the Swedish film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo before reading this book. The film’s quite faithful, so I knew the outcome and most of the other plot points, which might put me at a disadvantage in judging book on its own. Scenes like the key revelations from archival photographs seemed more effective on film than the page, though.
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Thumbnail sketch: Millennium prepares to publish an explosive expose of Swedish sex trafficking until ruthless assassins target the authors. A police manhunt and media feeding frenzy ensues when circumstantial evidence points to Lisbeth’s Salander’s guilt: can even Salander’s technical genius keep her one step ahead, especially when the mystery's solution lies with her own childhood?
Genres at play: Fire works extremely well as a police procedural, with sections that capture a compelling “real-time” quality.
Ridiculous contrivance: A life-or-death mano a mano bout between champion Swedish boxer (who is a real person!) and a massive bad guy impervious to pain.
Author's pet peeve: Larsson’s particularly irritated by irresponsible, rumor-mongering police and credulous journalists, but thankfully, he integrates these points more smoothly in the story than he does in subsequent books.
Lingering question: For all of the author's impressive command of on-line spycraft, he perplexingly neglects to give Millennium magazine an on-line presence, which could make a difference in some of the books' plot points.
Judgment:The Girl Who Played With Fire comes on like gangbusters, and could be likened to The Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. And like Empire, the ending's kind of a cliffhanger. It has the best — and most relatively plausible — cat and mouse conflicts between the crusading good guys and the sadistic evil-doers.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest
Thumbnail sketch: In the fallout of previous book's scandals and crime scenes, powerful governmental forces conspire against Salander to ensure her silence. Bloomkvistsenlists a counter-conspiracy of sympathetic journalists, lawyers, hackers and private security experts to turn the tables on the bad guys.
Genres at play: The portrayal of domestic espionage resembles an intellectually lite version of John LeCarre’ spy novels like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which dig into the complexities of intelligence organization seeking traitors and moles in their own ranks. It culminates with a lively courtroom sequence that harks back to Perry Mason.
Ridiculous contrivance: Salander and another character — each of whom want to kill the other — are hospitalized mere few doors away from each other, with no significant police presence top keep an eye on them.
Author's pet peeve: Institutional sclerosis and sexism at a major newspaper. Ironically, the newspaper subplot, which includes an increasingly nasty cyber-stalker who targets one of the heroines, commands most of our interest in the book’s middle, which consigns Salander to the sidelines.
Lingering question: We have to take it as a given that Bloomkvist, as a celebrity journalist, is irresistible to women, but isn't his affair with an Amazonian, fitness-obsessed government agent a little much?
Judgment: If the second two books were a 1,000-page episode of ‘Law & Order,’ Hornet’s Nest is the legal-oriented “Order” half. The bureaucratic details can be particularly turgid and hard to digest, but they also convey the real-world complexities of the conspiracy, where a dumber spy thriller would gloss right over such matters. And where none of the books can boast particularly good English prose, the writing's particularly clunky here. Could something be lost in translation?
The Final Verdict: The Girl Who Played With Fire is easily the series best, with the most gripping action scenes, the fastest pace and the most satisfying twists. But there’s a catch: you’ll appreciate it more if you read Dragon Tattoo, and you pretty much have to read Hornet’s Nest to learn how everything ends up. So you might as well read all three.
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