Book: The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Author: David Lagercrantz
Price: Rs 599
One of the hallmarks of paperback successes in recent times has been an afterlife in the hands of other writers. Sebastian Faulks paid homage to PG Wodehouse and his ever-popular Bertie and Jeeves with Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, William Boyd did an Ian Fleming with Solo, his continuation of the James Bond franchise. When Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in 2004, after the author’s death, to a phenomenal response, it was clear that his protagonists — investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, super-hacker and punk rebel — had a long innings ahead. Unfortunately, Larsson had left behind only two other completed novels and many incomplete drafts. It was only a matter of time then, given that the three-part series had sold nearly 80 million copies — that there would be a new lease of life for them.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the fourth book in the series, commissioned by Larsson’s father and brother, comes from Swedish journalist and crime writer David Lagercrantz, who has struck closely to the original model, while coming up with his own plot point.
When The Girl in the Spider’s Web opens, Blomkvist is a man out of sync with the times. A considerable amount of newsprint is being devoted to whether he ought to be “seen as a relic of a bygone age”, hashtags such as #inblomkvistsday are doing the rounds and plummeting revenues have led a Norwegian newspaper conglomerate to acquire 30 per cent shares of Millennium. Blomkvist would like to believe none of this affects him, but he finds himself increasingly agitated over the state of affairs. Into this chaos steps a young man with a story that sounds fantastic, but which is true nonetheless. Blomkvist finds himself back in the game when Professor Balder, who is working on artificial super-intelligence, calls him one night to share his story. By the time Blomkvist arrives, Balder has been murdered and the only clue that his autistic son August can provide about the identity of the murderer is the life-like sketch that he keeps drawing over and over again.
There’s someone else embroiled in this mayhem as well: Salander, who is always at odds with the law and who has her own reasons to track Balder’s case. When an attempt is made on August’s life, Salander decides, once again, to take matters into her own hands.
Lagercrantz’s fourth installment of the Millennium series has a wider ambit that involves not just the Swedish secret police, and the usual lot of gangsters, Russian hitmen and hackers typical of Larrson’s novels, but also the US National Security Agency. Like Larsson, Lagercrantz builds up an entirely credible universe, where state surveillance is an accepted reality and power is vested in those who know how to play the law to their advantage.
Lagercrantz builds up the plot in much the same way as Larsson — there are long-drawn episodes reinforcing the dystopia of the modern world, punctuated by sudden bursts of vitriol. But his account is nowhere as violent and incendiary as the original volumes. Lagercrantz seems far too intent on breaking down each action to its minutest detail, but it takes away some of the tautness that fans of the Millennium series have been used to.
What Lagercrantz excels at is in mapping the emotional track to Salander’s narrative. Her interactions with August — where two socially inadequate individuals communicate through algorithms and other mathematical problems — are beautifully done. Salander’s relationship with her sister Camilla is equally adeptly drawn, simmering with an ancient hatred, interspersed briefly with an uncharacteristic hesitation. It contains the seed of future additions to the series, but it also humanises Salander and gives her an emotional context that was never part of Larsson’s design.
It’s also why Lagercrantz’s account leaves one with a twinge of disappointment. When Lisbeth Salander appeared in 2005, part of her charm was her unpredictability. Salander has been one of the most original inventions in popular fiction — a vengeful sociopath of a heroine with an icy resolve and an uncanny survival instinct. Lagercrantz seems far too deferential to that idea of Salander and the fact that he is dealing with an icon already. He rationalises many of her actions, making her appear far tamer and less angry than the person Salander used to be. It’s a pity, but hopefully, he will get past that before the next instalment.