Once upon a time every crime writer from anywhere north of Letterkenny who produced a half-decent book was described as the new Stieg Larsson. But now there really is a new Stieg Larsson: David Lagercrantz has written The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow-up to Larsson's outrageously successful Millennium trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
In a way even Stieg Larsson was never “the new Stieg Larsson”. The Swedish journalist and activist died in 2004, so he didn’t live to see his books appear in print. They went on to take the publishing world by storm, selling more than 80 million copies worldwide, setting a new template for Scandinavian crime fiction and spawning three first-rate movie adaptations – plus one dull American remake starring Daniel Craig – in the process.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why the publishers have decided to reboot the franchise. The new novel has been published simultaneously in 25 countries, with an initial print run of 250,000 copies in the UK alone.
But who, you might well ask, is this guy Lagercrantz? Someone with a record in Nordic noir, perhaps? Or an anonymous young wannabe who’d do anything to get his name on a book cover?
Lagercrantz is neither. True, he has produced four novels, one of which attracted mildly enthusiastic reviews when it appeared in English this May. But although it is nominally a police procedural, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is as much a study of the life and tragic death of the mathematician Alan Turing as it is a whodunnit. In Sweden Lagercrantz is a household name thanks to his bestselling biography of the captain of the Swedish soccer team, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Why he was nominated to write that book remains something of a mystery. “I was brought up with this highbrow father, so we certainly weren’t reading ghostwritten football books in my childhood,” he said in an interview at this year’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival.
“Then I started to read ghostwritten football books, and I must say I’ve never read such boring books in my whole life.” His modus operandi in writing the Ibrahimovic book, he added, was to treat it as a novel.
This kind of quirky candour appears to be a Lagercrantz trademark. On a top-secret Skype line from a bunker somewhere deep below the offices of his Swedish publisher, Norstedts, he comes across as amiable, easygoing and completely comfortable in his fiftysomething skin.
Given that we haven't been allowed to read the book in advance of publication, could he give us some local colour – a blast of the Swedish title, say? "DAY-ess some-eente TER da loss," he obliges. Or words to that effect. "Det Som Inte Dödar Oss." It's a quote from Nietsche: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."
It's a bit of a leap from there to The Girl in the Spider's Web, just as it was from Larsson's Men Who Hate Women to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Does that difference in cultural focus bother Lagercrantz?
“Stieg Larsson fought for feminism and against racism, and you can feel that sort of anger in the books,” he says. “And that’s important. But in the States and in England they became Lisbeth Salander books – and of course you can understand it, because she is the most brilliant thing in the books.
"She is a great invention. She renewed crime literature. She is the new female heroine, isn't she? In England they've had all the Girl titles, so they found this one," he says, referring to The Girl in the Spider's Web. "I think it's quite good as well. Yeah, I think it's good."
Lagercrantz, whose English is not only fluent but also peppered with the sort of delightful plosives, inflections and glottal stops familiar to fans of Scandinavian TV crime dramas, waxes particularly lyrical when he talks about his hard-as-nails central character.
“She’s complex, she’s anti-social, she refuses to be a victim,” he says of Salander. “And then she has this outlaw thing – the hacking part. As with all iconic figures, we don’t really understand her. She’s still a bit of a riddle. But what may be most important is that she has this great, almost classical mythology, with the evil father raping and abusing her mother, and society protecting the evil father.”
For a crime novel to work, though, he suggests, just one outstanding character – especially one as enigmatic as this – is not enough. Lagercrantz has followed Larsson’s lead in partnering Salander with the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who, at the beginning of the new book, has fallen on hard times.
“All the important characters are there, and the same detectives,” Lagercrantz says. “Bublanski, the Jewish policeman. I like him very much. And we have the Hacker Republic. I love the Hacker Republic – this outlaw society, fighting back. Back in Stieg Larsson’s day it was just outlaws like Lisbeth Salander doing hacking, but now the worst hacking is done by governments and intelligence agencies. So we live in a society now, I think, when we need a Hacker Republic and Lisbeth Salander more than ever.”
Lagercrantz has introduced some major new characters of his own in the shape of an artificial-intelligence specialist, Frans Balder, and his eight-year-old son, who has autism. He has also included a generous helping of pop science. “It suits Lisbeth Salander,” he says. “In the last book she solved Fermat’s last theorem. In my books she’s into black holes and quantum physics.”
Early reviews have given the 544-page Girl in the Spider's Web a cautious thumbs-up. It's apparently tidier and sleeker than Larsson's meandering tales – but that's hardly a cause for complaint.
Apart from black holes, then, the darkest spot on the new novel’s horizon is a bit of gravitational lensing from Larsson’s long-term partner, Eva Gabrielsson. Because they never married she didn’t inherit a penny of his posthumous fortune – and she hasn’t hesitated to condemn those involved in the publication of the new volume, including Larsson’s heirs, his father and brother. The latter are unrepentant, insisting that Larsson had planned to write at least seven more Millennium novels.
“It’s such a sad situation,” says Lagercrantz. “I can tell you this has been the thrill of my life, writing this book. If I’d said no to it I would regret it all my life. The only thing that really hurts me is this conflict. I’m so desperately sorry that it hasn’t reached a settlement.
“I know she called me all kinds of things, and I respect that because I respect everything she has gone through, and I’m so sorry for it. It makes me sad that I make her angry and sad. But I also believe, and I do it sincerely, that this is good for Stieg Larsson, because we’re now reading his book again. We’re reading it again, we’re discussing it again and a new generation are finding his book. I really honestly believe that this is good for his authorship.”
And what’s next for David Lagercrantz? Will he be writing more Millennium novels? “There is a lot of talk about all kinds of things, actually,” he says. “I have all kinds of suggestions from all over the world, so I’m figuring what do I want to write and what should I write about.
“I think this is my thing: to align myself with some other universe. I mean, some writers write brilliantly about their childhood and other things that they know well, but I’m best when I go into other worlds. I don’t want to go on writing the same books. But first,” he says, offering a lopsided grin, “first I will try to survive the launch of this book.”
Northern lights: If the new Stieg Larsson's not for you, try one of these other shades of Scandinavian noir
Do we really want a new Stieg Larsson, now that we have an army of Nordic novelists popping out of the forest bearing spine-tingling tales on a regular basis? If you're not in the mood for David Lagercrantz, here are a few alternative suggestions.
Gunnar Staalesen Norwegian author of 20 novels set in rainy Bergen, many involving his wise-cracking, hard-drinking detective Varg Veum. The Consorts of Death is particularly atmospheric, with the action harking back to Veum's past as a social worker.
Karin Fossum Norway's "queen of crime" has created an elegant, mild-mannered detective in Inspector Konrad Sejer. The Glass Key-winning Don't Look Back finds Sejer trying to figure out why the body of a teenage girl ended up in an idyllic pond.
Mons Kallentoft Swedish journalist who has written eight books about Inspector Malin Fors. Midwinter Sacrifice, the first in the series, set in one of the coldest Swedish winters, opens with a mutilated corpse hanging from a tree in the frozen wastes. Chilling or what?
Camilla Lackberg Lackberg has been dubbed the Swedish Agatha Christie thanks to the cosiness of her golden crime-fighting duo, Eric and Patrik, who live a highly civilised life in the seaside village of Fjallbacka. Apart from all those murders, of course.
The Girl in the Spider's Web is published by MacLehose Press