Translated by George Goulding — There has been huge anticipation for this book, which carries on the story begun by Stieg Larsson in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and which continued in The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. As nearly everyone must know by now, Larsson actually died of a heart attack in 2004 – before his books became the global phenomenon that put Scandinavia on the map as a hotbed of crime fiction. David Lagercrantz is a Swedish crime journalist and an author, and was drafted in by MacLehose Press to continue the franchise. Larsson was both a gripping storyteller and a passionate social activist, which shone through in his characters brilliantly. For Lagercrantz, a very tough act to follow indeed…
The first part of The Girl in the Spider’s Web deals with Frans Balder, an artificial intelligence genius with secrets. One is a program that might make computers smarter than human beings. He also suspects that he’s been the victim of industrial espionage so he flies home to Sweden from California and tries to reconnect with his eight-year-old son, August. Balder arrives and takes the boy from the custody of ex-wife Hannah and her brutal, drunken actor boyfriend Westman.
Frans Balder may have a touch of Aspergers syndrome alongside his computer obsession, but August is way out there on the autism spectrum. The boy has never spoken a word, and yet he has talents. He is a savant when it comes to drawing scenes from his photographic memory, and is a whiz at prime number factoring. That’s the kind of mathematics used in the advanced encryption software which protects top level secrets from hackers. Hackers like… Lisbeth Salander.
Balder wasn’t wrong about the industrial espionage and soon feels threatened. Two cops are assigned to protect him. To get things off his chest, he calls the great journalist Mikael Blomkvist or Millennium magazine. In the first big set piece in Lagercrantz’s novel, an assassin bursts into Balder’s house. At the same time, Westman arrives in a stupor confusing the police guarding the house. The assassin shoots Balder through the head but can’t bring himself to kill August, and slips off into the night. Blomkvist and everyone else are befuddled by the murder, but soon August is drawing a near perfect image of the killer’s face.
Perhaps inspired by the WikiLeaks saga and all revelations made about America’s National Security Agency, technology, privacy and corruption are big themes in this novel. Behind all the action, computer hackers are watching each other, cracking codes and following online trails. The NSA has been hacked, and its top security man Ed Needham is hunting the culprit. Salander was secretly keeping an eye on Frans Balder and his problems. And there’s a third force – the Spiders – who appear to be Russian criminals.
David Lagercrantz loves a set piece, and before long we have another. Thanks to Salander’s computer skills she discovers that even in the home for Autistic children where August has been taken, he’s not safe. There’s been a leak and whoever planned the hit on Balder is heading there to shoot the boy. She races to the clinic and in all her commando-rolling, pistol-firing glory attempts to foil the hit and save August.
A big part of Lagercrantz’s plot is about the legacy of Salander’s father, Alexander Zalachenko. What’s happened to his criminal empire is something that Salander has been trying to monitor and soon she discovers that another face from her past is driving the plot to kill August Balder. Blomkvist, meanwhile, wants to land a big story but more than that he wants to protect Salander and fend off the NSA, which is trying to get to her through him.
While the plot is clever and extensive, The Girl in the Spider’s Web does seem a little disjointed. There are some long sections of exposition – particularly when Blomkvist visit’s Salander’s former legal guardian, Holger Palmgren – and the Zalachenko family history is explained. Stieg Larsson fans will delight in the many characters who return, such as detectives Jan Bublanski and Sonja Modig, but they feel like cut-outs, there for their familiarity but making little impact on the story. Stockholm’s winter storms are referred to almost methodically as the author generates the right Nordic noir atmosphere for his setting.
Again, Salander gets the chance to exact revenge on people who victimise women and children but I’m not sure she develops as a character in this novel. Blomkvist does reflect some on whether his ongoing affair with Erika Berger really isn’t hurting anyone, and is described as a little less athletic than he was. He seems the truest to Larsson’s original.
While The Girl in the Spider’s Web has its moments of gripping tension, it never manages to reach the addictive levels of suspense achieved by Stieg Larsson. This is a good Scandinavian thriller, and is certainly worth reading if you loved the Millennium Trilogy and its characters, but it won’t blow you away in the same way. There is unfinished business between Salander and her foes, so you can expect a sequel…
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CFL Rating: 3 Stars