It’s not hard to imagine why after Stieg Larsson’s death in 2004 his publisher would want to continue the wildly popular Swedish Millennium series featuring punk super hacker Lisbeth Salander and investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist. With more than 80 million copies of the books reportedly sold, it would seem on paper like a gamble worth taking, even with Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, criticizing the decision to continue the series as a money grab.
Unfortunately, the fourth installment, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” written by crime journalist David Lagercrantz, does nothing to elevate the series, and one might venture to say it even hurts the legacy of the original.
Set in Sweden over the course of several weeks in November, the novel quickly joins Frans Balder, a conflicted genius whose breakthrough in artificial intelligence technology is the centerpiece of the novel and ultimately puts him in peril. His young, autistic son, August Balder, unable to speak, witnesses a murder, and the boy — along with journalist Blomkvist, familiar from Larsson’s books — is drawn into a web of intrigue as a muddled cast of characters spanning the U.S. and Sweden race to find the killers, secure Balder’s missing AI technology and uncover the secrets of the mysterious criminal group that calls itself the Spider Society.
Featuring members of the NSA and the Swedish Security Police, dubious tech companies, Russian gangster hackers, “good guy” hackers, a femme fatale and Millennium, the ailing Swedish magazine constantly in financial peril in the series, the novel becomes a soup of flimsy plotlines and convoluted characters that fails to reach the thrilling heights of its predecessors. Lagercrantz could have been better served limiting the number of characters who only thicken the haze of a plot. He instead awards even the most minor players digressive back-stories, which act as a drag on the momentum of the story and feels like a failed attempt at meticulous character building common in the previous books.
Most egregious of the digressions, however, is Lagercrantz’s commitment to deflating any sense of urgency within the larger murder plot with lengthy interjections about the state of affairs at Millennium, a frequent target in Larsson’s original novels but one that was deftly interwoven into the original high-stakes thrillers. One would hope that Millennium could have figured out how to exist in the media landscape by this point, and its long-winded demise doesn’t feel fresh or the least bit dramatic. Moreover, Blomkvist’s pursuit of the “story” never gets out of the way of the real story and distracts us from the book’s real star, Lisbeth Salander. She feels crowded out of the narrative by new and recurring characters who aren’t nearly as interesting and are largely underused.
What is most frustrating about Lagercrantz’s installment is that he never fully trusts the reader, and so key revelations are repeated several times by different characters in connected scenes with little to no new insight. We are forced to wait for the detectives to play catch-up in an exhausting game of telephone. There is little sense of urgency during even the most important moments of the novel. After a crucial attack the investigators idly discuss known aspects of the case over pieces of Swiss orange chocolate while a key witness with new information happens to be sitting in the police station waiting to be interviewed.
The casual treatment of pivotal clues and information ends up undercutting the stakes of the entire novel. As does the on-the-nose dialogue: In one conversation between Blomkvist and the lead detective, Chief Inspector Jan Bublanksi, Bublanski says, “We live in a sick world, Mikael.” To which Blomkvist replies, “We do?” and Bublanksi confirms, “A world in which paranoia is a requirement.” By this point in the novel — or the series for that matter — if Blomkvist doesn’t realize he’s trapped in a sick world, he hasn’t been paying attention.
Although the Swedish title of Larsson’s first installment in the Millennium series was titled “Men Who Hate Women” (later changed to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in the U.S.), little of Larsson’s complexity or care with male-female power dynamics shows up in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” Salander is a shadow of herself, acting in an established blueprint but never evolving as a character. Two key women in the NSA and Swedish Security Police are no better drawn, inexplicably cast together in a lesbian flirtation. An aging actress won’t leave her abusive partner because she can hardly stand to be alone. And the biggest threat to Salander and the others in the novel is not a formidable foe because of her brains or strength but because she is beguilingly beautiful.
Lagercrantz seems uncomfortable and out of depth in Larsson’s dark world, skirting away from conflict and the bleak parts of life in which Larsson artfully immersed his readers. While Larsson kept a confident grip on Lisbeth Salander’s world, Lagercrantz has a more tentative touch — ultimately hurting the clarity and pace of this flabby thriller. It’s not hard to imagine what Larsson would think about the smoldering embers of his stark investigation into the cruelties that men inflict upon women.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Alfred A. Knopf: 408 pp., $27.95
Waclawiak is the author of “The Invaders.”