One of the great sagas of modern publishing began in Sweden in 2004 when a left-wing journalist delivered a ridiculously long manuscript to his publisher. The aspiring novelist, who died of a heart attack a few months later at the age of 50, was of course Stieg Larsson. His editor recognized the value of what he had written and also that it should be published as three related novels. She later said that when the first of the novels, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” appeared, she would have been happy if it had sold 10,000 copies. Instead, at last report, the three novels in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have sold in excess of 80 million copies worldwide. Their success was richly deserved. The novels offer a strikingly intelligent, gripping, angry look at political and corporate corruption in Sweden and, by implication, throughout the Western world.
Like countless readers, I would welcome a fourth novel in the series that equaled the high standard set by Larsson, but “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is not that novel. Authorized by Larsson’s father and brother, who were his heirs, and written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz, the new book brings back Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, the heroes and occasional lovers of the trilogy. It’s fitfully interesting, but more often the story is disjointed and annoying.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” started out as a conventional mystery about a missing girl. More than anything else, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is a novel about hacking. We learned in “Dragon Tattoo” that the pierced, punkish Salander was a formidable hacker, but here, in a world of warring hackers, she is the unquestioned genius. She guides Hacker Republic, a group of good-guy hackers, and ultimately manages to hack the supposedly invulnerable National Security Agency, whereupon she triumphantly tells its leaders, “Those who spy on the people end up being spied on by the people.” Many other hackers fill the story; some are criminal, others are corporate or governmental. Unfortunately, their deeds are too often presented in incomprehensible tech-talk.
At the end of Larsson’s trilogy, Salander stole a fortune and vanished, and she isn’t much seen in the first half of this book. Blomkvist thinks of her often (“He thought about a dragon tattoo on a skinny, pale back. . . . Where had she disappeared to?”), but we learn that he has fallen on hard times. His beloved magazine, Millennium, has been bought by a corporation that wants to force him out. Younger journalists have come to scorn him: “They pointed out that Blomkvist was not on Twitter or Facebook and should rather be seen as a relic of a bygone age.” (Courage, Mikael, you are not alone.) Desperate for a big story, he stumbles onto one about hacking and high-level corruption.
We meet Frans Balder, a computer genius who has recently reclaimed his 8-year-old autistic son from his ex-wife and her thuggish lover. The boy does not speak and barely functions, largely because his mother and her lover bought drugs with the money that should have gone for his treatment. Moreover, the lover beats him.
The boy improves under his father’s care, but trouble strikes. The father has, by his brilliant hacking, discovered that one corporation, aided by corrupt officials at NSA, has stolen priceless secrets from another corporation. Hired killers are sent to silence the father. The boy, who witnesses the attack but survives, proves to be a savant, a near-genius at both drawing and mathematics. Because he may be able to draw an accurate picture of his father’s killer, the hit men return. But by then, the fearless Salander is there to protect him, in scenes that provide much of the novel’s drama.
I recall the Larsson books unfolding gracefully. Lagercrantz’s narrative is fragmentary and confusing. It’s almost impossible to keep track of all the hackers, scientists and killers who emerge briefly, vanish, then turn up again after you’ve forgotten them. There are absurdly complicated moments when characters discuss such things as singularity theory, black holes, prime-number factorization and self-teaching algorithms. Several of the characters are certified geniuses but, sad to say, most readers are not.
Lagercrantz introduces one notable new character — Salander’s twin, Camilla. If Lisbeth is the most brilliant and brave of women, Camilla is the most beautiful and evil. She accosts Blomkvist on the street, seeking to lure him to his death, but this man knows the ways of women and “caught a strange twitch in her eyes, a sudden icy chill,” whereupon he escapes. Camilla, the power-hungry leader of a group of criminal hackers, is determined to kill the sister she has hated since childhood. Clearly she will keep trying as the series continues.
Larsson left no will and never married Eva Gabrielsson, with whom he had lived for many years. The huge royalties from his three books, therefore, have gone to his father and brother, with whom he reportedly had not been close. It has also been reported that they approved the publication of this novel over Gabrielsson’s objections. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” has a huge first printing of 500,000 in the United States alone and will probably adorn the bestseller lists for months and make millions for everyone involved. Don’t be fooled. Gabrielsson was right; Larsson deserves better than this.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
Previous reviews of Stieg Larsson’s novels:
By David Lagercrantz
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Knopf. 416 pp. $27.95