Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Third time's the catharsis (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)

As I’ve explained more than once in the past, I have a combination of both eclectic-skewing-to-geeky tastes and a stubborn sense of completism. This leads me to constantly red various new and different books, and because of the geek factor steering me towards the genre ghettos of the publishing world, a fair number of these new and different books end up being initial installments of multi-part series. The completist in me then generally wants to finish each series, even as I spread my attention around to other books and end up getting caught up in new series demanding my time and attention, and so on. At the moment there are nine distinct series I am somewhere in the middle of; earlier this week there were ten, but I can finally cross one of them off. Thus I am instituting a new, sporadic feature here at the blog under the general banner of Series: Completed.

Series: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series
Started reading: April, 2010
Number of books: 3

I got into this series right before it totally blew up, in fact right before the third volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s nest, was published in the U.S. and around the time that the Swedish film adaptations had become such huge successes that the U.S. remakes were coming on fast. Obviously it had already started blowing up a little bit, which is how it came into my consciousness to begin with. The mystery/suspense genre is actually one I’m not usually drawn to, but in this case I was fairly intrigued.

The entire Millennium series is populated with violent criminal characters and there is no shortage of legitimately shocking material. The first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is a fairly straightforward serial killer story, like Silence of the Lambs with a worldly male investigative journalist instead of a young female FBI recruit, plus a badass punk hacker girl sidekick who probably has Aspergers. The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, pivots to focus more on institutional atrocities by delving into the background of said Aspie punk hacker and detailing the brutal ways in which the social system has done her wrong.

I liked both of those books, but after the second one I needed a bit of a break because it was extremely depressing for a thriller. The stance of the first book seemed to be that lone predators may sometimes perpetrate horrible acts, but good people willing to use unorthodox methods can catch them and stop them. (This is, of course, not a terribly uncommon stance for most good-vs-evil action adventure stories.) The second book, however, seemed intent on exploring all the various ways that people can get away with horrible acts and never be stopped, because they are embedded in corrupt institutions. That’s no less true, but a lot less escapist.

So the Millennium series sat on my list of unfinished series for a long time, partly because I was waiting for the last book to come out in paperback (which the publishers were in no rush to make happen, once the movie mania hit full blast and most people were more than willing to shell out for the hardcover edition to find out what ultimately becomes of Lisbeth Salander) and partly because I was convinced that the third and final installment was just going to be another wallow in ultraviolent misery porn. When the paperback edition showed up at Costco recently, I snagged it, and as I’m still in a lull in re-reading The Dark Tower, here we are.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. The previous volume ended on a quasi-cliffhanger and the book picks up almost exactly where the story left off, which does not seem to bode well for getting away from the dire fatalism. Yet that’s exactly what happens, as the trilogy ends with a complete and unequivocal victory for the good guys, who manage to expose and take down the corrupt conspiracy at the heart of book two. It is almost pure wish fulfillment, an expression of the unshakable conviction that stout hearts committed to truth-telling and practicing the noblest of professions (journalism) can effect real change in the world, even bringing down secret cabals within the intelligence community of national governments. Absolutely everyone gets their comeuppance. And while I wouldn’t want to have to debate how realistic all of the plot twists may or may not be, I for one was highly entertained by them.

It went a long way to restore my faith in Stieg Larsson as an author, as well. I believe a fair number of people accused him of being a sick, sadistic misogynist based on the darker elements of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I could kind of see their points. But now, in retrospect, I think those people were jumping the gun, because they were pre-judging only a portion of what was then an unfinished story.

Depicting violence against women is not the same thing as condoning, excusing, or reveling in violence against women. And it’s almost impossible to write a story (or create any other kind of art, for that matter) about what is right and what is wrong and the dramatic struggle between the two without including examples of both. On the other hand, one can depict violence against women (or children, or minorities, or take your pick of potential victims) in a way that does glorify it, or minimize its wrongness. But I don’t think that applies to Larsson. There are some savage atrocities in his books but they are ultimately rebuked and the perpetrators punished. Sometimes it takes two or three books for the punishment to come about, which might be too long for some people’s tastes, but having read all three books it’s pretty hard to cast aspersions on the man’s intentions.

Allegedly, Larsson was going to write as many as ten books starring Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, but he died shortly after completing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Also allegedly, there may be fragmentary manuscripts of volumes four and five (and possibly six) out there somewhere, and someday someone looking to cash in on the series’ success might very well publish them. I’m sure I’ll end up reading those books myself if they do see the light of day, even though it will temporarily push Millennium back in the “haven’t finished reading” column. I think Larsson had enough interesting things to say that, even in partial and unfinished form, it would be worth it to spend time in his world again.

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