Stieg Larsson's 'Hornet's Nest' lacks sting

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THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland. Alfred A. Knopf, 563 pp., $26.95.

Advice to the budding mystery writer: Should you happen to create the most interesting character in crime fiction of the past 20 years, it's not a wonderful idea to leave her in bed for 387 pages of a sequel - unless you can find better things for her to do there than recover from brain surgery.

If you've read the late Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire" - and who hasn't, to judge from the bestseller lists - you may remember that The Girl, Lisbeth Salander, had been shot in the head at the end of "Fire." That would be curtains for the average mortal, but Salander makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer look like Miss Marple. She's as sharp of body as she is of mind, even if that mind is touched with more than a trace of Asperger's or some such syndrome. And that, of course, adds to the mystique. No one messes with Salander, be it with a phony sentiment or a perceived slight, and certainly not with any threat of bodily harm. This is a woman who tossed a Molotov cocktail into her father's car after he beat up her mother.

Larsson devotees also know that "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" is the third and final book in his posthumous trinity. The Swedish writer never got to enjoy his huge success, as he died in 2004 of a heart attack at the age of 50. It may be somewhat graceless, then, to kick a man when he's dead, but this last book might just as well be called "The Girl Who Ran on Fumes." With Salander lying in bed for so long, and then going to jail when she's well enough, the (in)action picks up with the previous books' co-star, Mikael Blomkvist, trying to prove she was acting in self-defense and was anything but insane when she assaulted her father.

Blomkvist certainly held his own with Salander, particularly in the first book. He's the co-owner of Millennium magazine, where he's the chief investigative reporter. He's also Mr. Babe Magnet. Straight or bi, married or single, no woman is safe from his charms. Including The Girl, who fell for him, only to find that she wasn't the only one he was holding close at night. So she's a bit reluctant to let him and his sister, who becomes her lawyer, help find out why the Swedish authorities are trying to protect her father, a Russian defector turned criminal, who tried to kill her - which is why she had that brain surgery. (She, meanwhile, buried an ax in his head, which he survived. Hardy folk.)

But Blomkvist doesn't fare much better out of bed than Salander does in it. His investigative powers are still first-rate, as he ties together how Salander's father, Alexander Zalachenko, helped members of Säpo, the Swedish CIA, during the Cold War, and they thanked him by getting his daughter institutionalized.

Much of the narrative reads like a watered-down version of John le Carré's Cold War novels of amoral spies undermining the lives of average citizens for the benefit of the greater good. But instead of le Carré's half-angels fighting half-devils, Larsson's characters fall squarely on either side of the good vs. evil divide and, therefore, aren't interesting enough to carry the political weight of the story. It's not enough, for example, that a psychiatrist is on the wrong side; he has to be into child pornography to boot.

The major problem with "Hornet's Nest," though, is that with Salander sidelined, there's not enough happening. Way too much time is spent sitting around talking about the machinations of journalists, agents, police and computer geeks. Larsson obviously knew how to write a page-turner, as evidenced by "Dragon Tattoo," but "Hornet's Nest" just drags on.

Even the sex is stale. Maybe something's lost in Reg Keeland's translation, but Blomkvist sounds like his material is being written by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd's Wild and Crazy Guys: "You give off the most incredible sexual vibrations."

Things finally come to life in the epilogue - more than 500 pages in. Frankly, you wouldn't be missing that much if you just skipped ahead. We won't, of course, tell you what happens. But it's a chapter that reminds us why The Girl was so special in the first place. And what has been so lacking for the previous 500 pages of the finale.

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