Though journalist Mikael Blomkvist was the ostensible protagonist and stand-in character for Stieg Larsson in the original Millennium Trilogy, the author offered up a far more tantalizing and unconventional heroine in Lisbeth Salander. And despite the controversy surrounding Salander’s return, the heroine’s latest perilous struggles, dogged investigative skills and tenacious fight for justice make for a thrilling next installment on the 10-year anniversary of her literary debut.
Published posthumously, first in Swedish in 2005 and then in English three years later, Larsson’s first novel centered on violence, particularly the pervasive misogyny underscored by its Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, known to English audiences as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This theme continued in Larsson’s following two books, titled The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Now Salander and Blomkvist have returned to the page in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, written by Swedish journalist and author David Lagercrantz. This development is due in part to the particulars of Swedish estate law, as Larsson’s father and brother control the estate’s literary rights. Larsson’s longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson, however, has criticized the new addition to the series as a money grab.
Controversy aside, Lagercrantz is an appropriate choice to continue the series. His adoption of Larsson’s writing style, flaws and all, is nearly seamless. Like Larsson, Lagercrantz somewhat awkwardly includes a quixotic defense of journalism’s potential for good, displays a tiresome emphasis on computer minutia and relies on dialogue that can be long on explication. But, in spinning a complex and intriguing new chapter in the adventures of Blomkvist and Salander, Lagercrantz has written a worthy successor to one of the more uniquely compelling thriller sagas of his generation.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web opens on a brief, two-paragraph teasing glimpse of Salander, who, woken from a dream, turns to her computer and “starts the hunt.” Lagercrantz then jumps forward in time one year, introducing the troubled but brilliant computer scientist Frans Balder, who had given up his life in Sweden for a job in Silicon Valley, only to abruptly quit, return home and demand custody of his young autistic son, August.
The novel then shifts to Blomkvist and his Stockholm magazine, Millennium, both on a poor streak since publishing blockbuster stories detailing the criminal syndicate run by former Soviet spy Alexander Zalachenko (also Salander’s father) and the far-reaching government conspiracy that enabled Zala’s worst crimes.
Once Lagercrantz sets the characters in motion, each following a particular agenda, the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together. When Salander, who is pursuing her own investigation of her father’s criminal legacy, re-enters the action, the pace quickens and plot twists lay in wait (some more obviously than others).
Lagercrantz’s story adds new thematic elements to the series, branching out from Salander’s hacker nature (here she proves that even the U.S. National Security Agency is vulnerable) to address questions of privacy and government surveillance, drawing parallels between the search for artificial intelligence and the mysterious capabilities of autistic savants. The author fills in more of Salander’s fascinating background, revealing how she became a vigilante wielding the power of technology in defense of the vulnerable and the victimized. In short, Lagercrantz reinforces Salandar as an uncompromising, methodical, driven and fearless character centered on her own moral compass.
While fans of the original Millennium Trilogy may still hold out hope that a story in Larsson’s files may one day be published, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the next best thing: an engrossing novel that digs deeper into Salander’s past while unraveling threads of a powerful conspiracy that goes straight to the top.