Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Girl in The Spider's Web by David Lagercratz

The Girl in The Spider's Web

The fourth book, commissioned by the Larsson estate and written by David Lagercrantz, turns out to be a respectful and affectionate homage

One of the best jokes of the late Douglas Adams was the cover-line that announced “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker trilogy”.  The Millennium Trilogy – the three books by the Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, discovered after his early death in 2004 – has now also become a questionable designation, having been fattened into a quartet through a sequel commissioned by Larsson’s estate from the Swedish writer David Lagercrantz.

Because the three originals were for several years as common a sight on beaches as sun umbrellas – an estimated 80m copies have been sold globally – an extension was probably economically inevitable.  Due to the high risk of piracy and spoiler publicity, it has been written and published amid the sort of precautions – webless computers, encrypted emails, embargoed copies stamped with a legal warning on each of the 432 pages.  This release had the kind of conspiratorial plot that lurks itself within its own pages.

The appearance of novels that a character’s creator didn’t write still tends to generate heated articles and tweets, but any ethical worries about posthumous continuation are challenged by the pile-up of precedents.  As publishing increasingly adopts the Hollywood model of handing over hit books to other hands, James Bond and Jeeves, among others, have experienced adventures that their creators would be surprised to find in a bookshop. Adams’s gag about his expanding trilogy has itself had an afterlife, with the addition of a sixth story by Eoin Colfer.

I guess for non-Swedish readers, Larsson through an intermediary is an already familiar thing because a translator was always been there between us and his original text.  Even so, this particular project has been more controversial than other posthumous literary works because of a dispute between Larsson’s blood family and his former girlfriend, who possesses a laptop that reputedly contains all the original drafts and notes, in the way that the author would have directed his next books.  For legal reasons, Lagercrantz had no access to this material and so started with a blank sheet after reading the published Larssons.  is the second most anticipated novel of the year, after Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. But, whereas Lee’s precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird offered a radically revisionist image of its central character Atticus Finch, Lagercrantz, a tenant rather than a freeholder on the premises, sticks closely to the existing design.

There's no argument that Lisbeth Salander is one of the great modern crime characters.  She's damaged, twisted and not entirely on the side of evil or good.  Best of all, her flaws are her strengths.  Revenge and personal agendas seem to be her motivation. This time, through a highly convoluted set of relationships she's set on tracking down her criminal mastermind father.  Also in the trail Lagercratz has his work cut out for him.  Not so much a  ghost writer or a replacement to Stieg Larsson, he's definitely got his work cut out for him,  He did an excellent job on Fall of a man in Wilmslow (about the tragic British computer pioneer, Alan Turing), an likewise has performed with excellence here, too.  This one builds slowly, smouldering away with a series of fragments, loosely tied together by the relationship of Salander and Millenium's star journo Mikael Blomkvist, who's back to play detective, albeit a clueless one until the end.  The story, in part seems to follow a victim, a professor of artificial intelligence, Balder who's brutally murdered in front of his estranged, autistic son, August.  August is not only the only witness to his father's death but is a living computer, able to manipulate numbers and draw anything with immaculate detail.  He unwittingly holding all the clues to the professor's work, which is highly sought after by industrial spies. 

In a bleak setting of the Swedish wintery ice and snow a plot slowly unfolds like a peeling onion, each layer becomes even more stinging.  Salander, on her own quest, is recruited to find out why Balder was murdered, but in turn she learns who really has masterminded all this. 

Sure, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is back but even more, she's the wasp on the spider's back.  Lagercratz's respect for Larsson means that he has, in some ways, grown the writer's work.  I can safely say it never becomes pastiche.  It's a book that pays respectful and affectionate homage to the originals.  Two of the new characters are a deliberate nod to the Pippi Longstocking books, Larsson’s inspiration for Salander; and the Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women, of the first Millennium book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:  referenced in a number of places - misogyny, maltreatment of women. There may still be arguments about whether continuation novels should be written at all but Lagercrantz could not have fulfilled the commission any more efficiently.  Hey, why not. If Bond can be remade by the Brocolli empire then why should the legacy of Salander die with Larsson? 

The novel leaves much to be said between Salander and Blomkvist and so surely increases the chances of the sequence continuing on towards the 10 books that Larsson is said to have originally imagined.  This book is as enjoyable, compelling and readable as the original trilogy and I would be surprised if there is another trilogy in train.  His skill simply adds even more to the cannon of Nordic skulduggery already available and invites you to seek out the next instalment.     

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