Stieg Larsson trilogy concludes solidly

Fiction: "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," by Stieg Larsson. Knopf, $26.95.

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Stieg Larsson wrote his Millennium Trilogy for fun and relaxation. His real work as an investigative journalist focused on Swedish and European neofascism, racism and corporate corruption.

These interests are also central to the last book of the trilogy, which again features an odd couple of sleuths, middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the happy hacker Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and got badly burned in the previous volume.

Actually she was shot in the head and buried alive, a bit of a rough patch for this plucky heroine.

Like the first two novels, "Hornet's Nest" is panoramic in scope with many fascinating characters realistic and grotesque, who are enmeshed in a high-stakes struggle for power and wealth.

The plot has basically two lines. The most important follows the attempts by SAPO, the Swedish secret police, to destroy or cover up evidence of its illegal efforts to commit Salander to a mental hospital and cover up the criminal activities of her father, Alexander Zalachenko, a Soviet intelligence officer who, years before, defected to Sweden and worked with SAPO.

A subplot follows Erika Berger, Blomkvist's lover and editor of Millennium, the leftist magazine he works for, as she leaves her small journal to edit a major mainstream newspaper with a large but diminishing readership and serious financial problems.

Her responsibility is to make the changes necessary to keep journalistic standards high while increasing its readers. Larsson's knowledge of the trade shines through in this section. He dramatizes some problems of contemporary journalism, including the influence of corporate ownership, as well as residual sexism in the workplace and the boardrooms.

Berger's trials as editor are, however, a sideshow and quite unrelated to the fate of Salander, Blomkvist and SAPO.

The novel opens with Salander under guard in a locked hospital room, accused of the attempted murder of her father. She had previously hacked into SAPO's files to find a damning report of their illegal activities.

Threatened by exposure from Blomkvist, who has the file, and from Zalachenko, who wants protection from prosecution for criminal acts (including murders), SAPO launches an operation to tap phones, retrieve and destroy incriminating documents, destroy reputations and murder any embarrassing witnesses. All, of course, in the name of national security.

Mr. Larsson's narrative moves swiftly among the ever more complex plot lines, enriching the dramatic, even melodramatic, action with accurate historical details of politics, journalism and the law in his country. His characteristic wit is most evident in his allusions to past masters and forms of crime and espionage fiction.

For instance, he inverts the "locked room" mystery by having the investigation (in this case Salander's), not the crime, occur in isolation. Salander's extraordinary abilities (photographic memory, mathematical and computer wizardry, her physical strength and toughness) make her a serious, yet tongue-in-cheek, superhero in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

And like those men, and other mythic characters, she apparently dies only to rise again and fight on. Blomkvist is Salander's Watson or Archie Goodwin, a canny, knowledgeable fellow who can organize the "Knights of the Idiotic Table" to support Salander's antisocial genius with worldly practice.

What Mr. Larsson has given us again is an old-fashioned, well-paced political thriller with its roots in Swedish history and a cast of interesting and colorful characters.

The problems he exposes are real, but in his fictional world the good eventually triumph and the wicked are exposed and defeated. That, as Oscar Wilde observed, is why it is called fiction.

Yet that fantasy is anchored by an abundance of realistic detail that allows us to believe, for a magical moment, in the possibility of justice in a very fallen world.

Michael Helfand teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh.


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