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Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Knopf, 416 pages, $27.95, translated by George Goulding

Wow! “Wow” for how much I enjoyed “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” “Wow” for what a tough row Swedish author David Lagercrantz had to hoe. “Wow” for cui bono: The continuation of the popular, thrilling, and provocative Millennium series props up the piggy banks of the estranged father and brother rather than Stieg Larsson’s long-term life-partner. And, lastly, “wow” for what Larsson’s projected plan for his characters must have been and how little we will ever know of that plan.

Part of the attraction of Larsson’s series was his naivety and his passion. He had never written a novel before, and it showed in the huge, honking section of the first book devoted to polemic and lecturing. But Larsson used his avatar, Mikael Blomqvist, and the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander to give voice to his real social and political concerns, and hit a literary and human nerve. The adrenaline-spiking scenes and the surprisingly clever revenge scenarios Larsson crafted were genius. He not only thought outside the box, he had the gall to say, “What box?”

David Lagercrantz captures the essence of Blomqvist and Salander, recapitulates Larsson’s central social concerns, tightens the writing, creates new compelling characters, but doesn’t quite deliver on the surprise and portrayal of exquisite revenge. But he comes close enough. Larsson evoked, "Oh, no, he didn’t; where’s the next book?” at the end of his books, whereas Lagercrantz evokes, “That was well done.” A compulsion created versus a satisfaction met.

At the beginning of “Spider’s Web,” it has been awhile since Blomqvist and Salander have had contact with each other. The fortunes of "Millennium" magazine, the heart of Blomqvist’s passion, are on the wane. The board of the magazine must make a deal with the devil to survive, unless Blomqvist can pull a big, issue-selling story out of thin air. Also a hacker has broken into the supposedly unbreakable NSA computer system in the U.S. Hmmmmm.

The underlying theme of “Spider’s Web” rides on the backs of the Julian Assange and Edward Snowden classified information stories. What should be ultra secure government organizations are actually leaky ships. (And should those organizations have the right to so much information anyway?) In the dark world of the Darknet lurk extraordinary hackers and they may have discovered damning evidence of a conspiracy to privately make money from government-held secrets. When Frans Balder, a computer and mathematical genius who is working on artifical intelligence, is murdered, his autistic son, August, may be the only witness. Are August and other computer geniuses at risk?

In separate storylines, we see Blomqvist and Salander facing these issues. Their “relationship” is fraught with past tensions and misunderstandings, but bonded by unacknowledged tender feelings and implicit trust. They must rely on each other (but not in person) to solve what becomes intertwined problems. Lagercrantz brings Blomqvist and Salander back to life with respect and a good eye for who they are. He also vividly creates or fleshes out some unusual characters like the odious but brilliant Ed Needham of the NSA and a wonderfully surprising guest from Salander’s past.

Finally, I can’t imagine Larsson writing this sentence: “Pensively he brushed his teeth and undressed and climbed into bed.” It is at once mundane and authentic. It felt as if Larsson always had an issue or deep thought to put forward, but Lagercrantz affords the time to set the stage. In this way, Lagercrantz moves forward both the action and the attending humanity. But Larsson’s originality and zing are ever so slightly missed.

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