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Book Review: 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest'

Lisbeth Salander, the toughest nut in Sweden, is back in the last of Stieg Larsson's posthumous thrillers.

May 24, 2010|By Richard Schickel, Special to the Los Angeles Times

But that's only the beginning of her singularity. She does not, for example, use her computer solely for crime-solving. She has also hacked her way into a multimillion-dollar fortune, which she keeps offshore and mainly uses for selfish purposes — like breast enhancement. She dresses badly, refuses to speak when authority figures — psychiatrists, cops — question her about her activities and, despite her tiny size, she is a martial-arts expert and deadly with guns. She's also bisexual.

Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books' nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them.

The answer to that question is yes. Salander may be the toughest nut in Sweden, but she is also a victim — of the country's by-the-book social-welfare system and of simple human cruelty. We like her almost in spite of herself — such a lonely, solipsistic young woman, lashing out at a world she can manipulate but can never fully comprehend.

Or maybe readers are simply caught up in the novels' hurtling plots. Don't forget, however, that Larsson spent far more of his career as a crusading left-wing journalist than as a writer of thrillers. His barely disguised political agenda was vitally important to him, since Salander's condition encapsulates everything he deplored in the dispassionate welfare state that he thought served Sweden's elite better than its ordinary citizens. She adds a certain weight to his entertainments, which has doubtless encouraged the clueless enthusiasm of his reviews.

On the other hand, this irony keeps straying into one's mind: In her vengeful, anti-establishment anger and propensity to violence, Lisbeth Salander is — that's right — a perfect tea party heroine, a minor, accidental avatar of our scary new political climate. One is free to imagine her decent-minded creator shuddering in his grave at this unintended consequence of his venture into sub-literature.

Schickel is the author, most recently, of "Clint: A Retrospective." His new film, "The Eastwood Factor," premieres this week on Turner Classic Movies.

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