There’s just a grainy voice on the Skype window. No video, not even a profile photo of the man on the other end. It’s the sort of setting that could belong to Lisbeth Salander’s world. It’s the sort of setting — emails, communication over the web, without faces or identities – that could belong to The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the fourth book in the late Stieg Larsson’s popular Millennium series.
Except, in contrast to the dark, dangerous internet the book projects, the voice chuckles, then apologies for starting the interview 10 minutes behind schedule. The voice belongs to David Lagercrantz (53), who has written the fourth book to Larsson’s ‘trilogy’ (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who kicked the Hornets’ Nest).
From the beginning, the book invited controversy. Larsson’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson said the late author had written additional matter to be used in the series. Lagercrantz, however, had started on his own, from scratch (with approval from the Larsson family). So, like an outsider in the bestselling family, Spider’s Web was ushered in intently by fans and critics worldwide, but also scrutinised.
When the Millennium project was handed over to him (in August, 2013), Lagercrantz says he was considering writing a love story. “It wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “Maybe I’m at my best when I collude (sic) with other people or universes. After Syndafall i Wilmslow (Fall of Man in Wilmslow; based on mathematical genius Alan Turing, who created the model for general computers in 1936), which was a huge bestseller, I had many ideas for all kinds of books. But it didn’t really get me going.”
The muse appeared in the form of Lisbeth Salander in 2003. Millennium’s publishers (Swedish company Norstedts) asked him if he would write a short book in the series. It was also the year in which whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked one of the most startling truths of our times (that the National Security Agency was collecting phone records of Americans).
“When I heard this, it created a fever in me… It was the whole universe of the trilogy, and Lisbeth Salander is just the kind of person I have wanted to write about all my life.” And then… “Suddenly, bam bam bam, I had the story, wrote the synopsis, and waited a day or so. I got an email from Larrson’s publisher with just three words — ‘So. Damn. Good.’ And off we went.”
Launched on the 10-year anniversary of the first Millennium novel, the NSA leak-inspired crime novel focuses on the genetic oddities of the Salander family. The genius hacker is, this time, confronted with the challenge of uncovering what happened to her father’s wealth (alluded to in Hornets’ Nest; 2007), a group of Russian criminals called the Spider Society, and a side project with her hacker community to break into the NSA’s systems.
Did Larsson’s voice loom over him as he wrote? “I was terrified to death because he is such an icon,” Lagercrantz says, even as he admits that he read the cult classic series of Nordic Noir quite late. “I’m a big fan of the Millennium trilogy. I identified myself easily with Mikael Blomkvist (journalist, and the other central character of Larsson’s series). He was the man I wanted to be.”
Bring him back to the question of comparisons with the original, and Lagercrantz walks the fine line. “We agreed that when I write this book, the reader should feel at home in the Millennium universe. But, at the same time, I’d need something for myself in it. I couldn’t pretend to be Stieg Larsson. I can’t be,” he says.
Lagercrantz brings Camilla, the evil twin sister, to the fore (she briefly appears in the earlier novels). “I saw her coming. Larsson mentioned her a couple of times in his books, describing her as ‘manipulative’ and ‘beautiful’. So I moulded her into this evil, manipulative person — that was quite fun, actually. Maybe she is a bit of a cliché, but I am playing with that. And if you go back and see Lisbeth’s old enemies in her family, there is a paradox somewhere.”
And this idea of genes and odd behavioural patterns is what possesses Lagercrantz and Spider’s Web. “My obsession throughout the novel can be seen with the characters we meet. With Lisbeth, of course. And then we have this autistic savant boy called August who is central to the story — that’s my signature. In a way, ever since I saw Rain Man (1988 Tom Cruise-Dustin Hoffman-starrer), I’ve been intrigued by autism,” he says.
Evidently, he was also intrigued by the threats of espionage, digital hacks and leaks. So Lagercrantz wrote the book on a non-connected computer. Even the translators weren’t allowed to use a connected computer. He says, “We sort of lived in the same way that I was writing about. Everything is now in a fake world, in a computer. And I think we need a Lisbeth Salander in this world more than ever.”
Millennium series: A quick introduction
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist teams up with a tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate the disappearance of an industrial tycoon’s niece.
The Girl Who Played with Fire: Lisbeth is accused of murdering a journalist trying to expose the sex trade in Sweden. Mikael tries to prove her innocence and picks up the journalist’s work, and finds that both are connected.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest: Mikael learns that a secret group within the Swedish Security Service has committed constitutional violations against Lisbeth. Along with the police, he tries clear to her of the murder charges.
* The Girl in the Spider’s Web is out in bookstores: Mikael and Lisbeth have not been in touch. A hacker gains access to top secret US information. Mikael knows only one person who could crack the best security systems in the world — Lisbeth.
Price: Rs 460 on flipkart.com
Publisher: Hachette India