The Girl in the Spider’s Web

David Lagercrantz, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press £19.99)

Sunday Times, 30 August 2015

An over-complex, insecure sequel to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy fails to get under our heroes’ skin

Stieg Larsson is one of the world’s best-selling authors. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success of his Millennium trilogy of crime novels – beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which was published after his death in 2004. The frustration of publishers and readers alike is not hard to understand, and it’s resulted in a Swedish novelist ‘continuing’ Larsson’s Millennium series.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web sounds like a Larsson title and the cover, which has a young woman peering over her bare shoulder, is an obvious visual reference to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These marketing devices are a clue to the weight of the task faced by David Lagercrantz, who has had to work with another author’s characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, and the expectations of millions of Larsson fans.

Larsson was able to give his imagination free rein not exactly from a position of anonymity – he was well-known as a journalist in Sweden – but without any of the history that bears down on Lagercrantz’s book. It was always clear that the Millennium trilogy had a political purpose, based in Larsson’s left-wing sympathies and his loathing of misogyny.

Lagercrantz tries to incorporate these elements, reminding readers about the dreadful abuse Salander suffered as a child and serving up a plot about the topical (and fashionable) subject of state surveillance. For reasons that aren’t clear until the end of the novel, Salander has hacked into the computers of the US National Security Agency, an organisation made famous by the revelations of the former government contractor, Edward Snowden.

Salander has also been doing some top-secret work for a Swedish professor and expert on artificial intelligence, Frans Balder. He has just returned from the US, where he worked for one of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley. Balder contacts Blomkvist, offering him a sensational story, but he’s murdered on the night they agree to meet. A mute boy who turns out to be a mathematical genius is the only witness, making him a target for the Russians gangsters who are also after the professor’s secrets.

The plot is hopelessly over-complicated, while Lagercrantz’s lengthy expositions on prime numbers suggest he’s trying to compensate for an insecurity about his role as Larsson’s successor. Largercrantz isn’t a bad writer when he’s dealing with his own material; his novel about Alan Turing, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, is a sensitive piece of fiction. But The Girl in the Spider’s Web lurches from dry mathematical formulae to noisy shoot-outs, creating a sense of manufactured urgency.

Most jarring of all is the careless sexism that runs through the novel. Most of the men are suckers for a beautiful woman, going weak at the knees over female characters whom Lagercrantz struggles to describe. Here is Blomkvist, responding to a stranger who picks him up on the street: ‘She was the most wonderful creature he had ever met, and from time to time she gave him a smile that made every paving stone, every breath, sound out a promise that something wonderful and overwhelming was happening’.

Blomkvist’s frequent conquests were a slightly irritating feature of Larsson’s novels but the journalist was never a complete idiot. It’s certainly hard to imagine the original character hearing about a plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted one his female patients and responding with the single word: ‘Oops’. Then there’s the excruciating moment when Salander, escaping from an assassination attempt in the back of a stranger’s car, whips off her shirt to make a bandage and reveals ‘breasts which stood straight out’.

Stepping into a dead man’s shoes was always going to be a challenge. The fault with this attempt is that Lagercrantz sticks so closely to the original formula, never managing to inhabit Larsson’s imagination and fatally inhibiting his own. Reading this book is a bit like buying a designer handbag, only to discover that it’s a carefully-crafted imitation.

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