Not many fictional characters can dominate a book even when they spend half of it in a hospital bed.
But not many characters are as uniquely compelling as Lisbeth Salander.
The brilliant, damaged, fearless young hacker who was the title character of the international bestsellers The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire returns for the third (and, alas, last) time in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. A bit of advice: With many crime series, it doesn't matter much if you read books out of order. With this one it does; start at the beginning.
The Swedish author of the Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson, started the first two books rather slowly, building tension before shifting into high gear. But there are no leisurely shopping trips to Ikea in Stockholm this time.
Hornet's Nest takes off pedal to the metal, directly from the harrowing finale of Fire in which Salander, having been shot and buried in a shallow grave, dug herself out and went after her lifelong enemy with an ax. She may only stand 4 feet 11 and look like a preteen, but the woman is tough.
Hornet's Nest opens with the two of them being delivered by helicopter to a hospital, where doctors remove a bullet from Salander's brain and patch up her other wounds. She regains consciousness to find the police are waiting to arrest her for three murders committed in Fire — and that her would-be killer is alive in the room two doors down.
That Salander got to the hospital at all is due to Mikael Blomkvist, the middle-aged investigative journalist she first teamed up with in Tattoo. Calling their relationship complicated would be a massive understatement, but even though she hasn't spoken to him in a year, he throws himself into building a defense for her and trying to discover who is behind the repeated attempts, beginning in her childhood, to institutionalize and silence her.
Blomkvist's research — and, once he can smuggle a tiny Palm computer into her hospital room, Salander's — leads to a supersecret cell within Sapo, the Swedish equivalent of the CIA. It's a group dedicated largely to protecting a former Soviet spy who defected decades ago, no matter what havoc he wreaks in the lives of people around him. The situation may be a Cold War relic, but the people involved still wield tremendous power.
Meanwhile, back at Millennium, Blomkvist's crusading magazine, his business and sometime romantic partner, Erika Berger, has resigned to take a job as editor in chief at one of Sweden's largest newspapers. In short order, she discovers corruption at the top and a stalker in the newsroom who sends her threatening, sexually charged e-mails from various phony addresses.
The subplot about Berger echoes some of the themes in Salander's story as her defense draws in everyone from Blomkvist's sister, feminist lawyer Annika Giannini, to Salander's trusty pals in the Hacker Republic (where she is known as Wasp).
Hornet's Nest has somewhat less kick-butt action than the previous books, with more of the story unfolding in courtrooms, boardrooms and newsrooms. Those were all familiar territory to Larsson, who, like Blomkvist, was a passionate investigative journalist who spent much of his career pursuing hate groups and fascists. He turned in the manuscripts of the Millennium trilogy to a publisher in 2004, but never saw their success — he died of a massive heart attack soon after, at age 50.
He is rumored to have left an unfinished fourth manuscript; his estate is currently the subject of a bitter legal dispute between his longtime partner (they didn't marry because of the dangerous nature of Larsson's work) and his father and brother. Hornet's Nest doesn't seem to have been written as a finale — there are many loose ends left in Salander's story, and the ending is, if not the cliffhanger of Fire, a new emotional frontier.
But even if a fourth book exists, I'm not sure we'd want to read one that wasn't entirely the product of Larsson's vision. As Blomkvist says in Hornet's Nest, "When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it's about violence against women, and the men who enable it."
That's what all of the Millennium books are about, really, and the reason Salander is such a resonant character. She isn't pretty or charming or even particularly nice. She's surly, uncommunicative, intensely private and perfectly willing to use her mad computer skills to, say, bankrupt unscrupulous financial moguls.
The core of her appeal, one that captivates so many readers (the books have sold 40 million copies worldwide), is this: She refuses to be a victim. Beat her mother and she'll leave you scarred for life. Rape her and she'll take her revenge with a Taser and a tattoo pen. Conspire in a high-level government plot to protect people who abuse women and children and — well, you'll just see.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.