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Review: ‘Girl in the Spider’s Web: A Lisbeth Salander Novel’ by David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A Lisbeth Salander Novel

by David Lagercrantz

Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding

Knopf

400 pages, $27.95.

By Jean Westmoore

Lisbeth Salander - the tattooed, pierced, misfit computer hacker who is the toughest and most fascinating female heroine in crime fiction - is back, and the writer selected to continue her story does her justice in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”

Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson died of a massive heart attack in 2004 and did not live to see the publication of his blockbuster Millennium trilogy starring Salander (who is “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Now, several years after publication of Larsson’s final book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz plunges into the Larsson universe with this smart, action-packed thriller that is true to the spirit of the characters Larsson created while adding interesting new ones and updating the political backdrop that made the Millennium series so compelling.

(For those who haven’t read the Millennium novels, an included list of characters continued from the books fills in the blanks sufficiently to follow the action.)

This is a world where magazines and print media are in crisis; this is a world of National Security Agency surveillance, a world of unholy ties between corporations and government, a world presenting sinister new opportunities to the criminally inclined.

The novel opens with a poignant portrait of computer genius Frans Balder, recently returned from Silicon Valley to Sweden to claim custody of his autistic 8-year-old son August who has been living with his mother and her alcoholic boyfriend.

Balder’s pioneering work on the concept of “technological singularity, the state at which computer intelligence will have overtaken human intelligence,” is explained in laymen’s terms and one assumes that the author has done his homework on the subject since he published a historical novel about mathematician Alan Turing in 2009.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist is in crisis, recently the subject of a nasty article profiling him as a washed-up journalist and targeted on social media with mocking hashtag #inblomkvistsday. He hasn’t written a compelling story since his work on the Zalachenko affair (Salander’s father, a Soviet spy who defected to Sweden and was protected for years by Swedish security forces despite his criminal activities and his violent abuse of Salander’s mother). Even Blomkvist’s long-term affair with married Millennium colleague Erika Berger has begun to seem less agreeable. The new corporate part-owners of Millennium dislike the magazine’s pioneering investigative journalism and want to get rid of Blomkvist.

Blomkvist has not heard from Salander in some time, but then he gets a phone call from someone claiming to have information vital to the security of the United States and also claiming to have been in contact with a superhacker resembling Salander.

Could this be the scoop that will save Blomkvist and Millennium?

Lagercrantz, a former crime reporter, sketches a credible portrait of the day-to-day realities and politics of a print media in crisis. (At one point, a corporate type muses: “It is impossible to overestimate how humorless underpaid journalists can be.”)

As Larsson did, Lagercrantz uses multiple viewpoints to tell the story, a particularly useful device in building the suspense as he skillfully choreographs the action sequences leading up to the violent confrontations that make up the pulse-pounding heart of the plot. There are small touches Larsson himself might appreciate: a mentor professor named Larson, a point at which Salander identifies herself as Pippi (Stieg Larsson is said to have envisioned Salander as a grown version of Astrid Lindgren’s beloved Pippi Longstocking character and the nameplate on her door reads “V. Kulla,” a reference to Pippi’s home of Villa Villekulla.)

The novel is set almost entirely in November, and the lashing winds, sleet and snow of the approaching Swedish winter, the dwellings in isolated locales add to the spooky atmospherics.

As in Larsson’s novels, the bureaucratic bumbling and outright moral turpitude of some in the social services, police and Swedish security forces endanger the innocent. (Two officers, dubbed by colleagues as “the Casanovas,” sent on an important assignment in the middle of the night, are described as “snooping around with the vague reluctance of small boys told to go outside in bad weather.”)

Lagercrantz follows in Larsson’s footsteps portraying the evil done to innocent children by inept institutions with his merciless portrayal of the Oden’s Medical Centre for Children and Adolescents and the clueless psychologist sent to evaluate August, a former gym teacher named Einar Forsberg.

Larsson fans will be happy to see the return of officers Sonja Modig and Jan Bublanski, who is now a chief inspector, questioning the existence of God and weary of specializing in “sudden evil death and morbid human perversions.”

Interesting new characters include idealistic young journalist Andrei Zander, orphaned in a Sarajevo bombing; a neurotic assassin who utters prayers before he shoots; a shadowy figure from Salander’s past referred to as “Thanos,” and washed-up actor Lasse Westman.

The beating heart of this book lies in avenging angel Lisbeth Salander, fierce defender of the innocent, and her uncanny ability to connect with August, the autistic boy.

The relationship between Blomkvist and Salander, too, gets an interesting treatment, carried out almost entirely through texts and an encrypted computer connection.

In true Larsson style, Lagercrantz leaves the door open for a sequel... or two.

Note: The audio book is read by Simon Vance, who does a marvelous job with the voices and pronouncing Swedish names.

Jean Westmoore is the longtime News’ children’s book reviewer.