The “next Stieg Larsson” is a badge that many Scandinavian crime writers sport with pride. While he may not have been the first (that spot is claimed by fellow Swedes Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö) writer from the Nordic region to win a global audience, he certainly is the highest selling. He died in 2004 after writing just three novels – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Stirred the Hornets’ Nest –
collectively known as the Millennium trilogy, which have since sold an estimated 80 million copies around the world, not to mention four hugely successful film adaptations (three in Swedish and one in English).
Larsson is not around, but his protagonists – the brilliant pint-sized goth-hacker Lisbeth Salander and intrepid investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist are enjoying an afterlife in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the latest work featuring them written by Swedish journalist and writer David Lagercrantz. The newest addition to their saga has been published somewhat under a cloud. Larsson’s untimely death left a messy legacy with a much publicised legal battle for control of his estate between his father and brother on one side arrayed against his long-time partner, who has declared her “disgust” with this new story, which has been commissioned by Larsson’s family. There are, of course, many recent examples of well-known and beloved literary characters enjoying an afterlife at the hands of other writers. P G Wodehouse was paid tribute by Sebastian Faulks, and even the highbrow William Boyd has done an Ian Fleming with a James Bond title Solo. The reading population has also been thrust with a new Agatha Christie novel and several Sherlock Holmes adventures, most of which have immediately exited into the sump hole where the mass of undistinguished works disappears, leaving fans aghast, even if these were intended as earnest tributes to the original authors.
The reader who picks up The Girl in the Spider’s Web cannot but wonder whether it will burnish or despoil Larsson’s splendid legacy. How much has the author stayed true to Larsson’s voice and vision? What new plot has he dreamed up for our protagonists without changing their “personas”? Let us also remember that Larsson was no Tolstoy. Though the Millennium trilogy is hugely enjoyable, the storytelling is often clunky, with patches of stilted dialogue and long digressions into vapid literal descriptions. What kept the reader involved was the evolving storyline and the character of Lisbeth and Mikael. We were happy when they got through their unlikely but ultimate triumph and that was that.
Lagercrantz has devised a plot which is in keeping with the broad themes that fascinated Larsson when he wrote the trilogy. It’s pretty much agreed that Blomkvist’s character is drawn heavily from Larsson himself, who like his protagonist, was one of Sweden’s foremost investigative journalists, with a decidedly anti-Fascist political stance and a strong distaste for capitalism and corruption in government. From crooked Swedish billionaires to thuggish Russian gangsters, spies, corrupt police and government officials and hackers, the Larsson universe was a credible one.
In this book, Lagercrantz has widened the ambit to rope in the Americans. There are some familiar elements: we find Blomkvist marking time, with his big-scoop days well behind him; Millennium is in financial trouble again. Lisbeth is living quietly, keeping clean of trouble. But soon they are sucked into game once again: a professor Balder who has done pioneering work in the area of artificial super-intelligence gets murdered after making contact with Blomkvist. The only clue to the killer can be provided by Balder’s autistic son. And Blomkvist gets his mojo back. Somewhere Lisbeth gets involved too, with the advent of a villain who has a connection with her turbulent past.
Lagercrantz builds the plot deftly. The narrative unfolds with the right dose of build-up to keep you turning the pages. Still, there is a feeling that Lisbeth in his hands is a more subdued and less angry, also possibly because she appears late, well into the tale. But that disappointment is perhaps inevitable. She is one of the most original inventions in crime fiction; certainly as overpowering a character as Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector. Her feminist, hardcore punk persona, her psychological traumas, her firm resolve, an intense instinct for survival and of course her hacking skills make her more than a regular character but an iconic one.
So, Lagercrantz has managed to break the jinx: he has given a credible and engaging afterlife to a riveting saga without stumbling. Now perhaps we should wait for the announcement of a major film studio buying the movie rights. Lisbeth Salander, tattoos and swag and all, has survived and is back. Typical of her.
(The author is a freelance writer)