The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz
by Robert A. Parker
This 2015 work is a remarkable continuation of the three thrillers of Stieg Larsson that feature Lisbeth Salander, the punkish computer whiz, and Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist. It is brilliant because it includes a fascinating victim, a helpless and endangered child, and rapid-fire pacing that keep shifting its point of view, each time leaving the reader in a moment of suspense but immediately picking up a new scene and a different character confronting equal suspense.
It also includes a complex, not completely believable, solution that involves the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), Swedish security police, Russian spies, and international crooks. And oh, yes, there is a maguffin: how close are certain characters to the development of an artificial intelligence superior to human intelligence?
A few old friends return besides Salander and Blomkvist. They include, in prominent roles, Salander’s remaining family; Blomkvist’s lover, Erika Berger; and police inspector Jan Bublanski. The other major characters are the scientist, Franz Balder; his former wife, Hanna Balder, the boy’s mother; the boy himself, August Balder, who is autistic; Ed Needham, NSA’s chief of security; and the villains.
The story begins with a father and son reacquaintance in Sweden and, across the pond, a stealthy invasion of NSA’s most profound computer secrets. Is the latter linked to Balder’s mysterious switch of loyalties as he researches the limits of artificial intelligence? This is followed by a sudden and unexpected death, to which the boy is a witness.
The novel’s main action then revolves around preserving the boy’s safety, since he was a witness to the murder; and the suspense arises out of the various attempts to kill him before he can use his photographic memory and his drawing skills to create an image of the killer. But there is also additional suspense because he is a mathematical genius, and his skill with numbers may help resolve the NSA computer break-in, by whom it was done, and why.
There is also a brilliant femme fatale who is behind the murder but before she appears we get to know the actual killers and follow their efforts to kill the boy, as well as the police’s efforts to find the killers and discover where the boy is. Despite her limited role here, one suspects this woman will be a key player if there are future novels in this series.
While Blomkvist and Salander are involved in this adventure—he having been approached by the scientist and then wanting to protect the boy, and she being determined both to find out how the NSA computer was hacked and to protect the boy—they do not dominate this novel, nor even control much of the action. Author Lagercrantz has not tied himself to these two heroes, but has let his imagination create a dramatic situation in which they are certainly involved but in which their own lives are not at the heart of the situation, as they were in Larsson’s original Millennium series.
But as in Larsson’s work, Lagercrantz here is interested in the corruption at the higher levels of government. In this case, the NSA is his main culprit, which is certainly topical. For it is using its computer research power to eavesdrop on communications throughout the world, especially those made by other governments and wealthy capitalists. But the author also suggests, less convincingly, that the NSA is working here with foreign governments and gangsters. It makes for fascinating reading, but it fails to convince.
What is new is the scientific emphasis in this series, especially the mathematical computations by August, at Salander’s instigation. Salander is still a computer genius, as in earlier novels, but here she focuses on August’s latent skills, employing them as well as her own computer skills. And it is not in behalf of herself but to explore the possibility of artificial intelligence and what is happening at NSA. She is using her genius in the search for justice—except not justice for herself, but justice for others.
More convincingly related to the novel’s exploration of the digital world, as well as to this search for justice, is the photographic and mathematical genius of eight-year old August, who is both autistic and traumatized. His situation captures his vulnerability as a person who cannot express himself, and makes him a key to the novel’s resolution. In many ways, he is the character most alive in this novel, certainly the one the reader most closely roots for.
To sum up, I am certainly interested in more works in this series by Lagercrantz. The non-stop action is what makes this interpretation of Larsson’s basic themes so effective, and it is heightened by the suspense in each scene. I would also anticipate a closer exploration of Salander’s personal story, the groundwork for which has been laid here with the presence of the mysterious and beautiful female mastermind.
From Blomkvist, I would hope for an exploration of malfeasance within Sweden in subsequent novels, whether at the corporate, government, or legal level, rather than more international intrigue. This is what gave the original substance to this series, and Lagercrantz’s being a Swedish journalist as well as a novelist surely provides him with the background to do this.
Finally, I would note that while I looked forward to reading this Millennium novel by a new author, I have felt different about reading the new Spenser novels commissioned by the estate of Robert B. Parker after Parker’s death. Is this simply because Parker lived a full creative life, while Larsson’s life was cut short before he could fully explore his characters? I suspect this is the case, especially since Parker at the end was following a formula more than exploring new ground. Whereas, there is much new ground to be explored here in terms of the corruption in Swedish society. (February, 2016)