THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB
Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding
Published by Maclehose Press/ Quercus
There has been a spate of ‘re-creation’ novels over the past few years: new stories featuring the iconic heroes of long-dead authors, re-created in the main by well-established modern writers. James Bond was one of the first to be exhumed: Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond books have now been expanded to 37, by figures as varied as Kingsley Amis, William Boyd, Jeffery Deaver, Anthony Horowitz and Sebastian Faulks. Faulks also revived Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in Wedding Bells, and Horowitz brought back Sherlock Holmes in The House of Silk. And let us not forget Sophie Hannah’s Monogram Murders, which re-launched the career of Hercule Poirot in 2014. By and large, these re-creations have not only caught popular acclaim, but also the spirit and persona of the originals. Horowitz’s Sherlock Holmes investigated a conspiracy older than Baker Street but with an especially contemporary flavour…child sexual abuse; it was utterly believable. Sebastian Faulks portrayed the language and mores of P G Wodehouse’s characters to a laugh-out-loud T. And, as someone who never much believed in Agatha Christie’s plots (but read the books anyway), I found Sophie Hannah’s 1929 Poirot scarily accurate.
And so to The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a follow-up – and to judge from its many loose ends perhaps the first of several – to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; it’s written by David Lagercrantz, a crime journalist authorised by Larsson’s estate to re-create the tense and combative relationship between investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. It’s been a controversial decision from its inception, not least because Larsson’s partner at the time of his death in 2004, Eva Gabrielsson has been in dispute with his family over how to manage his estate, and has not made Larsson’s three-quarter completed fourth book available to Lagercrantz, who has therefore had to create his own plot-line. Gabrielsson has dismissed him as having “nothing to write, so he copies someone else.” The problem for me, though, is that he doesn’t copy Larsson anything like well enough: much of what I’ve been reading is a pale imitation of what Stieg Larsson was capable of.
The basic plot is pretty straightforward: without giving too much away, Salander is on the hunt for her twin sister, who runs a criminal outfit called The Spiders. They’re involved with an IT genius, who gets murdered, leaving behind an autistic son, whose mathematical and artistic savant skills are the key to solving everything – or just about everything. In Larsson’s hands, based on the three books he did write (and all of which I have read), I have no doubt the suspense would have been almost unbearable; the action unpredictable; and the outcome dazzling. Regrettably, that’s not the case here. To begin with, there’s too much of a beginning: it’s slow, over-written and much of it just doesn’t ring true. Lagercrantz tries very hard to offer the unexpected, to build tension with a cast of interesting characters, but just can’t emulate Larsson’s imagination or sense of pace. Nothing exciting or definitive enough happens in the first seven chapters – then when it does happen, it’s clear some of the story-lines are almost irrelevant. There are too many of them – Millennium’s financial and editorial problems under its new owners, Blomkvist’s inability to find a good story, IT expert Frans Balder’s travails with his estranged wife and her drunken lover, and a daring breach by an unknown hacker of the NSA (American National Security Agency) computer system. Somehow, they just don’t hang together in a way that kept me on the edge of my chair. There’s too much explanatory detail thrown in, in too many words. Like all good serial mysteries, the book does open by introducing us to some new characters, about whom we want to know the how and the why. But they turn out to be characters from central casting; their back stories – given in extensive and often clichéd detail – are predictably of rags to riches, of bad boys made worse by their success. And the shadowy evil leader of The Spiders turns out to be – yes, a stunning, sexy blonde, who can make even the most dispassionate killer curl up round her little finger. At one point I thought I was reading the latest James Bond epic – something I suspect would have appalled Stieg Larsson. His skill was in the psychology of the people he wrote about… in his trilogy, Lisbeth Salander’s complexities aren’t listed: they emerge from what she does, whom she does it to and how she does it. The characters here are introduced in minute but clunky detail and remain curiously colourless as a result. I neither liked nor loathed them… I almost didn’t care. Conversations between people too often sounded forced and unnatural, or just too ‘explanatory’. The passing motorist, whom Salander forces to drive her away from a shooting, tells the police: “A man ran out [across the road] without even looking at the traffic and I remember thinking he must be a terrorist… he seemed to be bursting with this sacred fury.” Really?? Is that how a 22-year old member of the Syrian FC team would talk? Even one who drives a Volvo XC60?
Let me say there are sequences of real suspense and tension… pages where the action and the writing move to a different, altogether more terse, compact and thrilling level. When Lagercrantz abandons the clichés and lets the story speak for itself, some of the old Larsson magic breaks through. His description of the work of the NSA (tried and tested ground?) is excellent; the American dialogue generally is much more authentic than much of the Swedish; Ed the Ned at the NSA comes alive in several scenes, which have the tight quality of a good TV or film script. But Salander rarely gets to sound like her original incarnation… and her twin reminded me of no-one less than a really unpleasant version of Jessica Rabbit: not “just drawn that way”, but really bad… and somehow just too manipulative to be credible.
When I put the book down, I felt dis-satisfied. I’d wanted it to be so much better. Stieg Larsson was a phenomenon; his premature death left us with a brilliant but incomplete legacy… and I’m afraid this follow-up novel isn’t adequate to the task of either completing or complementing that legacy.
By Max Easterman
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