Hey, Wanna Buy the New Stieg Larsson?

I can still remember reading Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger (1959) and laughing my head off. Ditto the couple of other Fleming novels I read in those days before I decided I would rather watch the film versions. Fleming died in 1964, after writing a dozen James Bond novels, but more than double that number have been written since his death, penned by other writers. Mostly, I assume, the franchise has been continued so that the post-Fleming writers can make money, so that Hollywood can keep making Bond fantasies, and Fleming’s estate can continue to thrive. I still watch the movies, mostly for laughs. So I imagine that James Bond will live on forever, well into eternity. (There’s another Bond movie scheduled for release later this year.)

No real surprise then that we now have a new “Stieg Larsson” novel, continuing the Millennium Series that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007). As virtually everyone knows, Larsson died before the publication of any of these novels, which have now sold over eighty million copies. Because of Sweden’s legal system, none of the royalties from these books went to Larsson’s partner for many, many years. Instead, Larsson’s brother and father (from whom he was estranged) have received the royalties, an amount I calculate to be about eighty million dollars. Clearly, that isn’t enough for them so they have now authorized additional novels in what will be a Fleming-like franchise to keep the royalties flowing. Nor is it a surprise that Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, isn’t very happy about this.

The Larsson novels are several notches above Fleming’s. Larsson’s passion for exposing corporate and state abuse (his moral outrage) takes him to that higher level. And his characters, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, have a depth that Fleming’s characters never achieved. There are other aspects of the Millennium Series that make the three original books worthy of critical attention. (See my commentary on the novels: “Sweden’s Sexual Dystopia,” CounterPunch, Aug 20, 2010). Larsson’s premature death by heart attack at age fifty was an incredible loss. He must be rolling over in his grave shocked at the colossal success of the series and the recipients of the massive royalties. But if those issues continue to haunt him, his true outrage must be about his family’s decision to authorize the continuation of the series.

Which takes us to The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz, an imitation—though fast-paced—Larsson novel. The book isn’t so much an imitation like the post-Fleming James Bond narratives but a fake like those designer bags girlspiderswebsold on the streets of most large cities in the world. They look pretty good from a distance if you don’t examine them carefully, but once you buy one, you should expect that it will fall apart pretty quickly. You get what you pay for. Well, perhaps a little more in this case but not that much.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is described on the cover as a “Lisbeth Salander Novel,” though she doesn’t appear until you’ve read a fourth of the book. That by itself isn’t a problem. It’s what happens after she does appear. But before that Lagercrantz sets up his conflict: A celebrated Swedish computer guru, Franz Balder, who worked for an American high-tech company that was aligned with the NSA is assassinated a few days after he returns to Stockholm. He’s returned to Sweden because he’s had serious qualms about the NSA and his work with artificial intelligence—the possibility that the machines will take over—and because he realizes that he has ignored the needs of his eight-year-old autistic son, named August. That child watches as his father is killed, but the murderer, realizing that the boy is unable to speak, leaves the scene of the crime assuming that the boy cannot implicate him.

August, it turns out, is a savant, but no one has realized this. His mother (divorced from his father) has been told by her son’s psychologist not to let the boy draw because his drawings are obsessive. Enter Mikael Blomkvist who was planning to speak with Balder the night he was killed. Blomkvist realizes there is a story here, one that might save his failing magazine from the junk pile. It’s been years since Blomkvist has interacted with Salander, but he gets in touch with her only to realize that she’s already on the story since it involves NSA snooping and the hackers of the world with whom she’s aligned. Lagercrantz describes the connection between hackers and legitimate government and corporate interests as overlapping. They’re in bed with one another, i.e., your government snoops on you the same way that scammers prey on you. The supposedly ethical and the non-ethical parties depend on one another, especially big government which looks the other way while employing unsavory types to do its dirty work.

Most of the remaining several hundred pages—while exposing governmental and corporate malfeasance—follow Lisbeth Salander’s attempts to prevent Balder’s assassin from returning and killing his son, once the killer realizes that the boy has other ways of identifying him besides verbal ones. It’s a unbelievable chase, beginning with Salander’s initial rescue of the boy. She’s shot through the shoulder and leaking blood all over the place but she grabs the boy, opens the door of a passing automobile, and forces the boy to jump in with her. But wait, there’s an even more unbelievable scene later, after the boy’s attempted killer figures out where Salander is sheltering him. That time, midst gunshots flying everywhere and additional blood and gore, Salander returns to the place where they’ve been hiding, grabs August’s drawing of his father’s killer, quickly takes a photo of it, and sends that photo to Blomkvist and the police. Obviously, the makes their rescue possible.

If Lisbeth Salander had almost supernatural strengths of endurance in the original Millennium novels, in Lagercrantz’s fake her qualities border on the ludicrous, as does the novel’s ending, which is pure schmaltz. Yes, the entire book is fast-paced and you keep reading, refusing to put it down, but you’re also laughing much of the way at a “sequel” that can only be regarded as a parody of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Obviously, there will be another novel because Salander’s evil twin sister, who plays a major part in this story, is still at loose at the end of The Girl in the Spider’s Web. And—in case you are wondering—one of the hacker groups is known as the spiders.

Arachnids of the world unite.

David Lagercrantz: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Trans. by George Goulding

Knopf: 399 pp., $27.95


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.