Sometimes, death isn’t the end. Sometimes, after the heart of a great mystery writer stops beating, his or her characters raise a glass in tribute, and then continue on down those mean streets of their crime series.
Of course, that’s just an illusion created by some talented pros standing in the shadows. For instance, the literary novelist John Banville (under the pen name Benjamin Black) has carried on the adventures of Philip Marlowe. Suspense queen Sophie Hannah has recharged those “little grey cells” of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And hard-boiled masters Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman, respectively, have rebooted Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone series.
When Stieg Larsson died in 2004 — before his three completed Lisbeth Salander novels were published and became international phenomena — it seemed as though the goth girl with the dragon tattoo was predestined to make a limited appearance in print. But the novels were too successful and Salander’s fans were too fervent. So it was that Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz was chosen by Larsson’s estate to extend the Millennium series with a fourth adventure, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” Though purists were skeptical, that novel received terrific reviews, many praising Lagercrantz for evoking Larsson’s numbed noir atmosphere while eradicating the worst of his stylistic tics (among them: robotic dialogue and neurotic attention to his characters’ coffee consumption.)
“The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye,” Lagercrantz’s latest Salander novel, is even bolder — if somewhat more fantastical. It takes Salander on an extended quest into her origins, with plotlines about religious fundamentalism and the long tentacles of the Russian mafia.
The story opens with a quintessential image of Salander: She’s entering a small room and closing the door. Radically self-contained, Salander is never more herself than when she’s alone, working on mathematical problems such as “loop quantum gravity theory.” Yet over the course of the series, Salander’s autonomy has been complicated by relationships with, among others, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his sister, lawyer Annika Giannini, as well as by her one vulnerability: She cannot bear to see bullies torment their victims.
The room Salander is entering is, in fact, a prison cell. She’s serving a two-month sentence for questionable actions she undertook (in the preceding novel) to safeguard a gifted autistic child who had witnessed a murder. On the way into her cell, Salander notes that a fellow inmate — a beautiful Bangladeshi woman named Faria — is being roughed up by the prison’s resident sadist, a woman who’s dubbed herself “Benito” (after Mussolini). Salander eventually intervenes — of course — and puts Benito temporarily out of business. At the same time, she grows more curious about the religiously sanctified abuse that drove gentle Faria over the edge and landed her in prison for murder.
As fans know, when Salander gets curious, nothing, not even prison bars, can keep her away from a laptop.
Meanwhile, on the outside, Holger Palmgren, Salander’s elderly former guardian — one of the few people from her past who treated her with kindness — receives a surprise visit from a stranger who once was a secretary at the children’s psychiatric clinic where Salander spent some of her grimmest years. The woman has read newspaper accounts of Salander’s recent exploits and has decided to turn over some of the clinic’s documents to Palmgren. In them, there’s a reference to something known as “The Registry.”
Salander, along with Palmgren and Blomkvist, becomes convinced that this “Registry” holds clues not only to her identity but to a larger crime perpetrated decades ago in Sweden against children of ethnic minorities. As usual, a little knowledge proves to be a dangerous thing, and this investigation concludes, not only with justice belatedly restored, but also with a funeral.
Larsson had grand ambitions for his Millennium series, projecting a total of 10 novels. In Lagercrantz’s hands, the series is realizing grand ambitions of another sort. “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for An Eye” intensifies the mythic elements of Larsson’s vision. All the talk of stolen babies and a “search for origins” in this novel — along with the malevolent influence of Salander’s evil twin, Camilla — moves the series further into the realms of Star Wars and Harry Potter. A little of this legendary stuff goes a long way in Salander’s hard world. As Blomkvist thinks to himself during a key point in his investigations: “The sensational always sticks in the mind and stands out at the expense of the ordinary, which — maybe precisely because it is so ordinary — tells us something more significant about the real world.”
The enduring draw at the center of the Millennium series is that image of a strange and solitary young woman trying to even the score with all manner of bullies by dint of her brains and, when called for, some martial arts moves. A bit far-fetched, certainly, but it’s rooted in the just barely possible. “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” is entertaining, but “the girl” at the center of this wild tale is beginning to look like somebody we readers only used to know.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By David Lagercrantz
Knopf. 347 pp. $27.95