The famous Swedish scientist Professor Balder contacts the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, dedicated to exposing corruption and abuse, but within hours he is murdered and Blomkvist finds himself in the centre of the police investigation. The genius hacker Lisbeth Salander is hot on the trail of the cyber criminals who threatened Balder.
As I am musing over a completely different book which focuses on Stieg Larsson and his lost files relating to the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (review of Jan Stocklassa’s The Man Who Played With Fire to follow) my thoughts go back to reading the first of a ‘new’ Millennium novels written by someone other than the original creator of the now legendary Lisbeth Slander fighting right-wing villains.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked Hornets’ Nest were reissued by MacLehose Press in June 2015, ahead of publishing Lagercrantz’s book in August the same year.
Following overexcited publicity, rumours and secrecy surrounding translation and publication of The Girl In The Spider’s Web I was hoping that aside from creating the outrage that David Lagercrantz took on the iconic modern-day super-heroine, that the novel will live up to the expectations of Lisbeth Salander’s fans. And thanks Odin (Norse mythology), it’s a good story. In fact, it’s really great, especially if you don’t compare it with Larsson’s legacy which is in a different world / era – which I won’t.
The premise is relatively modest. A renowned Swedish scientist Professor Frans Balder returned from America to his homeland. Living like a recluse, he has recently started caring for his autistic eight-year-old son August and recognises that the boy is a savant, with extraordinary mathematical and artistic skills. Balder fears for his life, after his computers have been hacked by a dangerous group called Spiders, headed by Thanos (supervillain of Marvel Comics origin), yet he refused protection offered by the secret police Säpo. One night he deletes years of his Artificial Intelligence research and contacts the uncompromising investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is currently stuck in a professional rut. A couple of hours later the professor is murdered.
Blomkvist also finds out that a genius female hacker has been in touch with Balder, aside from breaking into the most secure computer systems of the American National Security Agency. That could only be ‘Wasp’ (comic book superhero): Lisbeth Salander. She is following her own agenda, tracking her vicious powerful twin sister. Salander’s character seems to take the centre stage, and she is as Larsson’s original creation as I can remember. At first Blomkvist appears more as her sidekick – though those roles evolve naturally as the investigation into the murder progresses. Full of contradictions, Salander is the fighter for justice: especially for the abused women and children. She’s ruthless and merciless yet compassionate, breaking every possible rule, and I want her to succeed. And so does Blomkvist.
The first half of the book concentrated on laying the foundations and delivering a sophisticated tractate on the AI concept, explaining the most intricate details of the cyber world/ underworld security, and painting a political and business backdrop for the troubled Millennium magazine. And then suddenly it takes off! I couldn’t read fast enough from the point when Blomkvist realises that the exquisite yet unsettling drawings found at the murder scene are in fact drawn by August, a witness to his father’s murder. It was like a slow climb up the ski slope in preparation for the longest ever ski flying in the air where you cannot get out for the fear of missing out while being targeted by the cyber and real criminals at the same time. Lagercrantz’s brilliant craftsmanship is visible in characterisation and plotting narrative of the novel, translated masterfully by George Goulding who not only conveyed the atmosphere of this thriller but also managed to make the mind-boggling (for me) issues of cyber espionage and the mathematical algorithms understandable. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, fast and pacey, violent and intelligent, is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.