:: Article

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Max Dunbar.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Stieg Larsson, Quercus 2009

There were going to be ten Lisbeth Salander books, and the first volume of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy acts as a very long preface to the main body. You must read it, still, and not just because it sets you up for what follows.

We are introduced to the hero, liberal reporter Michael Blomkvist. He has just been hammered in court for publishing an attack piece on an influential businessman that he cannot substantiate. His public life destroyed, and facing a prison sentence for libel, Blomkvist is contacted by an unlikely ally, another wealthy tycoon who is trying to track down a niece who vanished on a remote island some half-century ago. After the breezeblocks of technical detail that accompany Blomkvist’s downfall, it’s a change and a break to get to the distant sweep of Hedestad. (The books are not much on description, but we sense the place just the same.) It’s at this point that Larsson’s narrative power kicks in, and keeps going for another two books. And you will be wishing he had lived to write more.

As Blomkvist gets more and more involved in the lives and history of the village, his story is spliced with that of Lisbeth Salander, a twentysomething genius and outlaw. Christopher Hitchens attempts a summation: Salander has ‘a photographic memory, a chess mind to rival Bobby Fischer’s, a mathematical capacity that toys with Fermat’s last theorem as a cat bats a mouse, and the ability to ‘hack’…. into the deep intestinal computers of all banks and police departments.’

Blomkvist comes across as a friendly amateur most of the time. Salander is simply not of this world. Aside from her intellectual talents, the focused autism of her demeanour, her Tank Girl wardrobe and physique, Salander embodies a strange combination of the vulnerable and the invincible. She’s had an abusive childhood – the back story doesn’t really catch up until book two – and been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Yet after being raped by her lawyer, she overpowers him, ties him up and carves an amateurish tattoo into his abdomen: I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST. A few months later, the solicitor makes some tentative enquiries about laser removal – and that night finds Salander at the end of his bed like an avenging goddess. And she does seem godlike: she gets shot in the head and survives.

The episode is significant because Larsson (in Nick Cohen’s words) ‘believed misogyny to be an unpardonable evil, and wove a feminist argument through the trilogy with enormous skill.’ Larsson took care to ‘avoid the shades of grey, which reduce so much contemporary fiction – and political thought – to a formless blur.’ 

In too many novels complex ambiguity slides into a washed-out null zone. Larsson’s sadly posthumous success rests not only on his magnificent storytelling ability but because, like Dickens, he was not afraid to love and to hate.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 9th, 2010.