When Swedish author Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he was only three books into his planned 10-volume Millennium series, an initially intoxicating mix of journalism, politics, and the partnership between a muckraking journalist and an antisocial hacker. It’s unfair to burden The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest with failing to close out the series correctly, but this disappointing installment is all delay, no payoff.
A string of unsolved murders in the previous book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, turned hacker Lisbeth Salander into a celebrity suspected of forming a lesbian Satanist cult. Hornet’s Nest finds her under arrest and gravely injured after a run-in with a former KGB agent. In spite of a disagreeable parting, journalist Mikael Blomkvist hopes to prove Salander’s innocence, but his efforts interfere with the operations of his magazine Millennium, already teetering since editor Erika Berger jumped ship for a daily newspaper. Meanwhile, Salander’s enemies are equally determined to lock her in a mental hospital for life, with the cooperation of a psychiatrist who has a toxic history with her.
Cultivating boredom ahead of shocking violence is a hallmark of Larsson’s work, but Hornet’s Nest invests in its dullness differently: Early tensions, like the heart-stopping sequence in which Salander and one of her attempted victims wind up in the same hospital ward, give way to introductions of seemingly interchangeable characters and discourses on construction sites and municipal chains of command. Impatience, not suspense, drives the page-turning impulse. A rare beneficiary of this approach, Berger flourishes here, facing down corporate greed and a vicious stalker, only to have her arc rushed to resolution so another Blomkvist love interest can take the stage.
This type of scene-setting is endemic to middle volumes, but Larsson might have redeemed himself with an ending that justified the bloated cast and tedious backstory. Instead, the culminating scenes depicting Salander’s murder trial are a sprawling mess standing in the name of justice, conducted in a manner so patently unbelievable as to sap the outcome’s impact. Its wheezing mechanism feels like another stall, inelegantly pulled off and without even the consolation of a cliffhanger. Larsson excelled in creating memorable characters playing dangerous games, but Hornet’s Nest leaves many of both as ciphers. How disappointing that a promising series had to go out like this.