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Aug 28, 15

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Review: ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Brings Back Stieg Larsson’s Detective Duo

AUG. 26, 2015
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Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Books of The Times

By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
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Fans of Stieg Larsson’s captivating odd couple of modern detective fiction — the genius punk hacker Lisbeth Salander and her sometime partner, the crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist — will not be disappointed by the latest installment of their adventures, written not by their creator, Stieg Larsson (who died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004), but by a Swedish journalist and author named David Lagercrantz. Though there are plenty of lumps in the novel along the way, Salander and Blomkvist have survived the authorship transition intact and are just as compelling as ever.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” finds the pair drawn into the case of the enigmatic computer scientist Frans Balder: a prominent expert in artificial intelligence who’s become ensnared in a global intrigue involving the Swedish Security Police (Sapo), the Russian mob, Silicon Valley industrial spies and United States national security interests.

Mr. Lagercrantz’s efforts to connect unsavory doings in Sweden to machinations within America’s National Security Agency are strained and fuzzy — a bald attempt to capitalize on Edward J. Snowden’s revelations about the agency and the debate over its surveillance methods. But then, readers weren’t smitten by “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” because of its plotting (which relied heavily on straight-to-video serial-killer-movie clichés), its plausibility or Larsson’s anti-authoritarian politics. They were smitten with that novel and its two sequels — “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — because of the fierce charm of Salander and Blomkvist, and their unlikely chemistry. And because Larsson was so adroit at conjuring a moody, noirish Sweden that turned the stereotype of a clean, bright Scandinavia (where people drive Volvos and buy Ikea furniture) back into a land of long winters, haunted by the ghosts of Strindberg and Bergman.

In “Spider’s Web,” Mr. Lagercrantz demonstrates an instinctive feel for the world Larsson created and for his two unconventional gumshoes: Blomkvist, the dedicated, mensch-y reporter (and unlikely middle-aged girl-magnet); and Salander, the fierce, damaged girl who looks like an angry, punked-out version of Audrey Hepburn (if you can imagine Holly Golightly rocking tattoos and piercings, instead of a tiara) and who fights with the kick-ass video game skills of Lara Croft.

Mr. Lagercrantz captures the weariness, even vulnerability, that lurks beneath these two characters’ toughness, and he understands that each is motivated by a craving for justice — Blomkvist out of crusading idealism, Salander out of a determination to avenge the abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her sadistic father, Zala, a former Soviet operative who defected and became the head of a vast criminal enterprise.

Like the earlier novels, “Spider’s Web” deals out more clues to Salander’s past, which shed new light on how this onetime victim became a fierce, take-no-prisoners survivor, and managed to reinvent herself as a kind of superhero avenger. In fact, her mysterious, long-absent twin, Camilla, emerges in some overly melodramatic scenes here as her archenemy, a beauteous man-killer who seems more like a cartoony Bond villainess than a real human being.

A far more persuasive and compelling character in this novel is Balder’s 8-year-old autistic son, August: a savant, extraordinarily gifted as an artist and a mathematician, but severely traumatized by the abuse inflicted on him by his mother’s violent lover, and almost incapable of speech. August, who witnessed his father’s murder and who plays a crucial role in searching for the killer, will remind some readers of the autistic narrator of Mark Haddon’s affecting 2003 novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (later adapted into the Tony Award- winning play of the same title), and Mr. Lagercrantz makes the boy a deeply touching character. His pain and exceptional gifts make him a kind of youthful alter ego to Salander, who will use all her skills, all her own genius — at hacking, at intelligence gathering, at survival — to protect him when his father’s enemies come to hunt him down.

“Spider’s Web” is less bloody, less horror movie lurid than its predecessors. In other respects, Mr. Lagercrantz seems to have set about — quite nimbly, for the most part — channeling Larsson’s narrative style, mixing genre clichés with fresh, reportorial details, and plot twists reminiscent of sequences from Larsson’s novels with energetically researched descriptions of the wild, wild West that is the dark side of the Internet. Presumably, the N.S.A. has been dragged into the story partly as a means of paying homage to Larsson’s anti-authoritarianism and his dark view of state power (developed most fully in “Hornet’s Nest,” which grappled with political corruption in Sweden and the malfeasance of Sapo).

And while Mr. Lagercrantz never makes the N.S.A.’s involvement in the case Salander and Blomkvist are investigating remotely convincing, he writes with such assurance and velocity in the later portions of the book that he powers through these more dubious passages.

Instead of pausing to parse the implausibility of some of the interlinking conspiracies in “Spider’s Web,” the reader quickly turns pages to see how Salander and Blomkvist will put together the puzzle pieces of the Balder case (with a big assist from August). We wonder how the decisions they make on the fly — on the run or under fire — shed new light on who they are at this point in their lives. And whether their individual missions — his attempts to untangle the story of Balder; and her efforts to track down the criminal enterprises of her hated father — will put them on a collision course or make them partners, romantic or otherwise, once again.

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB

A Lisbeth Salander Novel, Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series

By David Lagercrantz

Translated by George Goulding

400 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95."

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