How much suffering can an author put a character through before it begins to border on a kind of literary sadism? The rapes, torture and beatings that the late Stieg Larsson’s signature character endures in his massively successful Millennium trilogy are gruelling to read but also posed a challenge for the author — one that, in the event, Larsson never had to confront. His original plan was a 10-novel sequence, but, in order to maintain the character dynamic and give Lisbeth Salander a revenge motivation for all the gruesome violence she visits on her adversaries, would she be forced to endure yet more abuse in each new volume? As Larsson himself is now out of the picture — he died, aged 50, in 2004 — the same problem has presented itself to the man charged with continuing the franchise, the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz: replay the motifs of the earlier books or attempt something new?
Making the dilemma especially acute is the fact that Salander is the crucial element in the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and its sequels. Of course, the innovation and exuberance of the books’ plotting play a part, as do their trenchant social critiques, which are of a piece with Larsson’s own crusading personality. And indeed, Larsson’s untimely demise has only added to the mythic qualities his life and work now possess. But Lisbeth is the key to the books’ all-conquering sales, because she is that rare creature in crime fiction: an utterly new type of protagonist.
A two-fingers-to-society punk hacker, she looks forbidding — assorted tattoos, facial piercings, ill-matched clothes — and has a formidable capacity for mayhem, yet is also immensely vulnerable. In all three books, she struggles with personal demons and the shadow of a monstrous parent, as well as the cruelties that her tormentors inflict on her. (The trilogy’s critics have always struggled with the graphically described abuse, despite the compensatory factual asides scattered throughout — "18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man" is typical.) Lisbeth could scarcely be more different from her fellow investigator, the disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who is cut from familiar genre cloth: the tenacious reporter taking on dangerous enemies.
When Larsson’s publishers commissioned a fourth book, Lagercrantz was a natural choice. A Swedish journalist like Larsson, he had also written an accomplished crime novel, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, built around the death of Alan Turing. His assumption of the Larsson reins has, however, been much excoriated by the late writer’s partner Eva Gabrielsson, who has mentioned a fragment of a fourth Salander novel written by Larsson, but is at daggers drawn with Larsson’s relatives over his legacy.
Lagercrantz has toned down the sexual violence of the original trilogy, but not at the expense of delivering a cleverly written recreation of the world of the earlier books. The Girl in the Spider’s Web often reads uncannily like Larsson’s own work, even to the extent of some unwieldy detail concerning minor characters who swiftly vanish from the narrative. This is a book that will — largely speaking — please Larsson admirers.
Lisbeth has been working with an eccentric Swedish computer scientist, Balder, an expert in artificial intelligence. But Balder is distracted from their collaboration by an astonishing discovery about his mute, damaged son (whose characterisation is one of the book’s key achievements), while Lisbeth — who has cracked the US National Security Agency database — finds that she has both the security services and a shadowy, murderous group called the Spiders on her trail.
Meanwhile, Mikael, adrift in the new high-tech media age, is summoned by Balder for a conversation that will never take place. It is, of course, inevitable that Mikael and Lisbeth — ex-lovers as well as former colleagues — will meet and will soon be up against the kind of lethal enemies they encountered in the earlier books.
As well as forging a persuasive simulacrum of Larsson’s style (minus the more outrageous plotting), Lagercrantz’s real achievement here is the subtle development of Lisbeth’s character; he allows us access to her complex, alienated world but is careful not to remove her mystery and unknowability. Lisbeth Salander remains, in Lagercrantz’s hands, the most enigmatic and fascinating anti-heroine in fiction.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz is published by MacLehose Press