Lisbeth Salander is back – can this addition to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series succeed?
Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson planned 10 instalments in his Millennium series before his untimely death. The three novels he did write, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , had energy, spectacular violence and superb plotting. Larsson’s weird, sometimes clunky prose style was forgiven because there was real chemistry – empathy, even – between his two stars, the computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. The series made a fortune and, as no good deed goes unpunished, it has been turned into a franchise.
The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye
is the second instalment to be written by the Swedish biographer and novelist David Lagercrantz The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2015) sold very well and this new outing has been published with full blockbuster treatment.
Damaged, dysfunctional heroines are common in thrillers, but Larsson’s Salander was a fabulous, surprising character – a feminist superhero, an Amazonian queen, a Lolita who fought back. Obsessive and antisocial, she was forged in the crucible of violence she experienced as a child. She took the kind of revenge on rapists and paedophiles that most only fantasise about, taking on powerful, corrupt men with righteous but lawless violence. With Blomkvist, she was the glamorous half of one of the oddest but most effective and entertaining crime fiction couples. Blomkvist, the old-school social justice warrior with a penchant for underdogs and a hatred of social hypocrisy, provided a perfect foil.
The Girl Who Took an Eye for an Eye
is billed as the revelation of the appalling things done to Salander when she was a child, but the narrative meanders between a bewildering array of storylines that never come together. The story starts with Salander in prison for unconvincing reasons. When she does wander on to the page, she gets beaten up or does stuff on her computer, but remains ghostly and uninhabited. The author commits the cardinal thriller sin of telling rather than showing what she does: there are long, mansplaining sections about genetics and social research that made me pray to Elmore Leonard, the god of economical thriller writing, who famously instructed that writers should “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.
Lagercrantz has turned Larsson’s eccentric and feral feminism into a simple inversion. This time there are two female arch-villains after Salander. One is an ageing, ailing Mad Scientist with a doctor’s bag of syringes and lethal poisons who is determined that nothing of her social eugenics programme will be revealed. The other is a ludicrously cartoonish gang boss who is in cahoots with a pair of nasty brothers – billed as Islamists – who have hired her to persecute their jailed and silent sister. There are identity-switching twins who make the antics of Sebastian and Viola in Twelfth Night seem pedestrian, and many references to Salander’s evil twin.
The reader is repeatedly told that Salander and Blomkvist are driven by a desire for justice, but because we spend so little time in close-up with the book’s heroine, it is not convincing. There is a sluggishness to the plotting and much of the tension relies on orchestrated interruptions and delays, which irritate. Lagercrantz has all the elements of the Millennium series at his disposal, but the adrenaline is missing: it feels as if one has gone to a restaurant, ordered a rare steak and been served soggy fish fingers instead.
Translated by George Goulding. 368pp, MacLehose, £20
The Girl Who …
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Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)