The Girl In The Spider's Web is good, but not as good as Larsson's thrillers

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB

by David Lagercrantz

Maclehose Press/432 pages/$29.86 w/o GST/3.5 stars

The Girl In The Spider's Web is a compact, tidy little thriller.

But while it stars the much-loved characters from Stieg Larsson's bestselling series, it lacks the manic energy, the eccentric sprawl and the Grand Guignol gestures that made the original trilogy such compelling page-turners.

This is not to say David Lagercrantz has written a terrible book. On the contrary, The Girl In The Spider's Web is actually a cut above generic cookie-cutter thrillers, and really quite readable. Unfortunately Lagercrantz, a journalist like Larsson, has some very big shoes to fill.

He does try his darndest. The context has been updated. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was first published in Sweden in 2005, and a decade is an eternity in pop culture. Hence The Girl In The Spider's Web, in the style of its predecessors, takes a leaf from the real world and borrows the United States' National Security Agency as the Big Brother backdrop while packing in advances in computer science, surveillance and cryptography as interesting detours in the scenery.

 

When the story opens, journalist Mikael Blomkvist is in a story slump. After the great revelations of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, the last book of the trilogy, which provided Blomkvist with journalistic scoops and powered his magazine Millennium to greater heights of prestige, he has not written any more exposes. Millennium's journalistic successes have not been matched by financial gains, and co-founder Erika Berger has sold a 30 per cent stake to the Norwegian Serner newspaper empire to help keep the magazine going.

Blomkvist gets a late-night call from a renowned computer scientist Frans Balder, promising a scoop. He arrives at Balder's house only to get caught in a crossfire which kills Balder, leaving the latter's autistic son, August, a silent survivor and witness to the brutal murder.

In true Larsson fashion, the complex and sometimes random pieces of the puzzle involve industrial and international espionage, criminal networks and academic egos. Lagercrantz juggles these pieces fairly well, working them into the main narrative with a fair amount of skill, probably thanks to his journalistic experience in weaving disparate facts into a coherent whole.

Given the need to work in well-loved characters from the trilogy, there are some secondary cast mentions that feel like mere walk-on appearances - Harriet Vanger and Hans Faste are demoted to a couple of lines each. This is not an issue as they are not crucial to the storyline.

But there are quibbles with the characterisation of the two biggest names in the cast.

Blomkvist seems uncharacteristically self-pitying and snivelly in the first few chapters as he moans about not finding any stories that interest him and about being in a journalistic slump. However tired or demoralised he might have gotten in Larsson's books, the defining characteristic of Blomkvist is his single-minded devotion to, and pursuit of, The Story. He is the journalist as superhero, so to speak, chasing sources with dogged determination and upholding the fourth estate with a true believer's faith in its function to speak truth to power.

Salander is the most loved character from Larsson's series and Lagercrantz is smart enough to not to mess with her too much. The enigmatic, edgy anti-heroine of the Millennium trilogy mostly stays that way, intervening with her action hero antics to save August in a way that will make her fans cheer.

But there is one section guaranteed to drive much fevered debate from Lisbeth's fans: the explanation of the origins of Salander's online handle, Wasp. The explanation is also tied into the main narrative as it describes the origins of the big bad Salander is fighting in this book: A criminal organisation that has sprung from the remnants of her father's criminal empire and which calls itself the Spider Society. While the explanation is pop culture friendly, it is dismayingly reductive in its simplicity.

The way this revelation is presented - told by Salander's old protector Holger Palmgren to Blomkvist in lengthy speeches - also smacks of sloppy haste: It's too complicated to think up an organic way to weave in the information, so we'll just have Palmgren do a cameo and tell Blomkvist everything.

The shortcomings in the book will probably be noticed only by the purists. For the casual reader looking for an entertaining beach read and a comfortable return to familiar surroundings, The Girl In The Spider's Web will serve its purpose. And if the sales are healthy, the publisher who commissioned this sequel is likely to commission more because the ending screams sequelitis.

Larsson may have planned 10 books in the series, but he is unfortunately not around to finish it. Without his distinctive aesthetic, sequels in the Millennium series are unlikely to recapture that Larsson magic, as this book proves.