THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST Stieg Larsson MacLehose Press, £18.99
READING the last lines of a good book always bring about a melancholic satisfaction. You are pleased with the achievement of finishing, but saddened that there will be no further time spent with the storylines and characters you have encountered.
How much more bitter-sweet then, to complete The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, last book in the Sweden-based Millennium trilogy by author Stieg Larsson.
Like the first two, the third part of the trilogy encompasses brilliant storytelling, vivid and pacey action, a "whydunnit" and political polemic as well as a detection thriller, and features a couple of fictional characters who are as memorable in their own way as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
Yet that is the end of them. Unless some other passionate genius can be found to take up Larsson's ideas for more Millennium books, we will have to be satisfied with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and this last book. For Larsson died of a heart attack, aged 50, shortly after delivering the manuscripts of the trilogy to his publisher in 2004.
To read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, it is essential to have read at least its predecessor in the trilogy, as this book opens where the last one left off.
The action centres around crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist trying to prove that the "Girl" of all three titles, his former lover Lisbeth Salander, is innocent of the attempted murder of her father, a KGB defector called Alexander Zalachenko, even though she did put an axe in his head.
A tiny computer hacker with a photographic memory, Salander begins the book in hospital, recovering from bullets in his brain, hip and shoulder. She uses her hacking skills to defend herself even from intensive care, and being dysfunctional, she is amazed that Blomkvist and others are prepared to help her.
Long ago, a sinister invisible grouping within the Swedish secret police put Salander in an institution where she was abused by psychiatrist Peter Teleborian. Now the superspooks are out to frame Salander again, and Blomkvist – like Larsson, the editor of an anti-fascist investigative magazine – uses his Millennium publishing concern to expose the whole conspiracy against Salander, which reaches deep into the Swedish government and legal system.
The strange relationship between Salander and Blomkvist is not at the core of this book, as it was in the previous two, and since Salander is in hospital for most of the action, it is Blomkvist who takes centre stage as he hunts down the spooks, assisted by the "good" cops and spies and his occasional lover, Erika Berger, formerly of Millennium and now editor of a major daily newspaper. She has her own murderous stalker to contend with too.
The secret conspirators will stop at nothing to silence Blomkvist and Salander, such is their fear of discovery, but in true All The President's Men fashion, the journalist and his ally battle on to the almost bitter end.
Throw in savage Hell's Angels, a coterie of super hackers helping Salander, and even the prime minister of Sweden, and you have a delicious mix of storylines.
The final court scenes, where Salander and Blomkvist's advocate, his sister Anika Giannini, confront Teleborian and the ambitious but misguided prosecutor Richard Ekstrom, are superbly played out. And there are still enough pages for Salander to be put in mortal danger by her murderous half-brother.
A genuinely engrossing read, the book does have its flaws, as it is hardly literary, and some plot twists – including an unlikely new love interest for Blomkvist in the shape of an Amazonian policewoman – are unnecessary.
As with the previous two novels, the principal characters are richly drawn, but the police and spies are less so – Larsson clearly wasn't interested in cops and spooks.
Some reviewers of the first two books said Salander was not a credible character. They should have waited for the whole trilogy, because Larsson shows how Lisbeth became the person she was, thus exposing officialdom's misogyny, which is present not just in Swedish society.
Again there is enough journalistic and technological detail to satisfy geeks, and the bad guys are interesting because they see themselves as preserving Swedish democracy when they are in fact subverting it – a moral dilemma Larsson fully explores, though you can guess which side he comes down on.
The conclusion to the Millennium trilogy is just as fine as the preceding two volumes. How desperately sad, then, that Salander and Blomkvist will have no further adventures, as surely no-one could depict them quite like the late, great Stieg Larsson. v
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