When Jack Reacher creator Lee Child reviewed the new Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sequel The Girl In The Spider’s Web for The New York Times, he couldn’t find the words to describe its aggressive, iconoclastic, instantly iconic co-protagonist. He refers to the series’ main characters — familiar from three international bestsellers and a 2011 David Fincher film adaptation of the first novel — as “the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the — what, exactly? — Lisbeth Salander.”
That rhetorical shrug seems unnecessary. Plenty of words sum up Salander: hacker, activist, vigilante, researcher, criminal. But there’s also a simpler way to express who and what she is.
Lisbeth Salander is a superhero.
A 4-foot-11, 90-pound version of Batman
In the three international bestsellers Swedish author Stieg Larsson completed before his death in 2004 at age 50 — The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, all published posthumously as the Millennium series — Salander is framed, institutionalized, beaten, sodomized, shot in the head, and buried alive. And yet she keeps coming back, implacable and undaunted, and obsessively dedicated to protecting women from their male abusers. Over and over throughout Larsson's novels, his unstoppable hacker uses her research and programming skills to identify women who are being terrorized, and terrorize their tormentors in turn. For all the cruelty she endures, she's a wish-fulfillment figure, an unstoppable force impervious to humiliation or judgment. She's a 4-foot-11, 90-pound version of Batman: inhumanly skilled, insanely rich, and with an uncompromising moral code based in childhood trauma.
But one difference between Salander and Batman is that he's always been a company-owned property, while she was the creation and intellectual property of one author — until he died, at which point her copyright and legacy became muddy. After Larsson's will was deemed unwitnessed and invalid, his estate passed into the control of his father Erland and brother Joakim, leaving his domestic partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson, shut out of any inheritance or influence on his legacy. Gabrielsson has been relentless and expressive in her contempt for Larsson's family and their choice to continue Lisbeth Salander's story with The Girl In The Spider's Web. Their legal and public-opinion battle has carried out over the course of the past decade in Swedish newspapers, with both sides claiming the moral high ground.
Among other things, Gabrielsson says Larsson was estranged from his family and would never have wanted them in control of his work; they dispute that assertion. They claim in turn that they offered her millions of dollars and a seat on the board that makes decisions about his estate; she says they would have muzzled and outvoted her if she'd taken their offer. She says she has Larsson's laptop, with 200 pages of what would have been the fourth Millennium book, plus notes on the rest of the series; Erland and Joakim made the decision to take the series forward with no access to that material. Some pundits and fans have said the Larssons are opportunists, taking advantage of the series' popularity, milking it for whatever it's worth, and openly disrespecting Stieg Larsson's intentions for the series. Others have responded that Gabrielsson is an egotist whose belief that she alone can interpret Larsson's wishes posthumously has alienated the people who might have been willing to work with her. All over the internet, wherever Girl In The Spider's Web comes up, reader comments are split between "I'll never read this cheap, morbid cash-in" and "Hooray, finally more Lisbeth, I can't wait!"
All of which makes The Girl In The Spider's Web an uncomfortable read for longtime fans. But those who pick it up may be thrown by an unexpected issue — its quality. It's unabashedly a piece of licensed, commissioned professional fan-fiction, on the order of the estate-approved Gone With The Wind sequels Scarlett and Rhett Butler's People, or John Gardner's officially sanctioned continuation of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. But it's as much a creative work as an imitative one, and it's much more stylistically sophisticated than Larsson's three Millennium installments.
Stieg Larsson's writing style tended toward flat declaratives, minimalist dialogue, and major events playing out in a few emotionless sentences. The final chase scene and death of the primary antagonist in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo takes up fewer words than a scene of Salander examining her new breast implants at the beginning of Girl Who Played With Fire. But where Larsson was spare, Lagercrantz's writing is denser and more descriptive, less punchy and more colorful. In his hands, the Millennium series has shading and texture for the first time. Given the tension around the rights to the series, and the controversy over continuing it in the first place, Lagercrantz had plenty of incentive to take a stylistically anonymous ghost-writer's stance, imitate Larsson's prose voice as closely as possible, and limit his expansion on the Millennium mythos. Instead, he brings his own distinctive take to the book.
Lagercrantz, a Swedish biographer and novelist, is little-known in America: virtually none of his works have been translated into English. In Sweden, he's primarily recognized for his biography of a Swedish national soccer team captain, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, written in a brisk, simplistic, informal style that doesn't much resemble his fiction. But Lagercrantz's biographies naturally focus on exceptional people living exceptional lives, and his novels tend to draw on real-life situations, fictionalizing other exceptional people. Apart from I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, his biggest success was 2009's Syndafall I Wilmslow, about Alan Turing's life and death; 2006's Himmel Över Everest, about a disastrous mountain-climbing expedition, grew out of his research for his biography of solo Everest climber Göran Kropp. From an American perspective, a sports biographer seems like an oddball choice to carry on a potboiler series about international human trafficking and buried family secrets. But from a Swedish perspective, Lagercrantz brings some of the same qualities to the table that Larsson did: he started his career as a crime journalist, and his past books deal heavily with mysteries, murder, and institutional decay.
Still, what comes across clearly in Spider's Web is his status as a comics fan. Like Larsson, Lagercrantz recognizes that keeping Salander at center stage blunts her mystery, and he uses her sparingly, keeping her offstage as much as possible in the early going. But once she appears, Lagercrantz strikes out on his own by making her superhero parallels as overt as possible. For the first time in the series, he suggests that her hacker ID, Wasp, isn't about her diminutive size or how dangerous she is when provoked: it's a direct reference to Marvel superhero Janet van Dyne, whom Salander admired as a child. The Marvel nods don't stop there; Lagercrantz gives Salander a nemesis who operates under the codename Thanos (the big purple baddie teased repeatedly at the end of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies), and has a series of underlings with more obscure Marvel villain names, like Alkhema and Zemo.
The supervillain narrative is one of the sillier elements in The Girl In The Spider's Web, but it points to Lagercrantz's willingness to make distinctive choices. He's clearly studied Larsson's books closely, and he keeps the focus on misogyny, graphic sexual sadism, and shoe-leather journalism work. But he also takes the story forward dramatically. Spider's Web dives into the future of Blomkvist's struggling magazine Millennium, a bastion of journalistic integrity in a quick-hit clickbait age. As he looks for a new scoop, he's drawn into a complicated intellectual property case involving a reclusive genius working on an artificial intelligence. Industrial espionage, murder, an autistic boy with plot-convenient savant powers, and the NSA all wind up involved, as Blomkvist mostly watches the story unfold faster than he can research it.
No one would mistake Lagercrantz for Larsson, despite their shared tendency toward long, page-eating sequences of character-to-character recap, and for giving even the most minor characters complicated and irrelevant backstories. Lagercrantz evades longtime critics of Larsson's by dialing back on the transparent author self-insertion that made Mikael Blomkvist such a ridiculous figure: the sexually irresistible, struggling, middle-aged journalist. But it's easy to see Larsson in Lagercrantz's execution of his characters — particularly the consistency with which villains are marked by their sexual savagery. And Salander's fans are likely to be pleased by how well he captures her aggression, determination, and calculation, while confidently pushing her story forward.
Still, neither the book's appealing willingness to expand the Millennium universe, nor its respect for the original books, seems likely to change the moral stance some fans have taken to Lagercrantz's continuation of the series. As with the significant questions raised about whether Harper Lee was competent and comprehending enough to approve the publication of her long-shelved novel Go Set A Watchman earlier this year, the Larsson family's commissioning of more Millennium books has reignited the ongoing debate about who can claim an author's legacy, especially given a lack of clear indications about what he might have wanted after his death. Lagercrantz seems to have done his best to pick up the threads that Larsson dropped, but that still doesn't answer the question of whether Larsson would have wanted someone to continue his work.
But The Girl In The Spider's Web is a much better continuation of the series than it could have been. It's a cluttered book, packed with extraneous characters who keep diffusing any sense of a central plot, and it's full of what seem like distracting, even uninteresting tangents. But it's also a compelling and ambitious novel, a project much bigger than a simple tossed-off cash-in. The temptation for anyone writing a new Millennium book would have been to foreground Lisbeth Salander, the series' breakout character and most indelible and memorable element. Lagercrantz resists the urge to wear her out, to pander to the die-hards by giving them everything they want. This may not have been the legacy Stieg Larsson wanted for his strange superhero. But at least she's in the hands of someone who seems to understand her.