I am one of the millions who call themselves fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I have been to several of the band’s concerts and each time exit with the firm belief that there can never be another musical experience as satisfying and intense as that. And I am always wrong because the next concert, and the one after that, is always even better than anything which went before. I get older, the band gets older, so much so that some are no longer with us, but there is an inevitable progression about Bruce and the band that history is unable to interrupt still less reverse.
But I had never, until now, believed it was possible to make the same case for a series of books. Now I am delighted to confess that I was wrong. I do not need to dwell on the merits of Stieg Larsson’s three books in the Millennium series or their background. Even if they had not been the real epics they were, their background – an unknown Swedish writer presents three draft books to his publishers but dies of a heart attack before they are published – would probably have sold them by the busload. And that, of course, is exactly what happened. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in the UK in 2008 by a largely unknown publisher specialising in Swedish titles. It had relatively little marketing but proved it didn’t need much except the word of mouth variety. I well remember being told time and time again by friends and other crime fiction fans that I had to read it. I did and sent the same message out to people I knew. Without question, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best crime fiction book I had ever read. Time became a blur as I rushed over the pages eager to unlock the final mysteries. I don’t think I ever read a book with such speed or such excitement. Nor had I felt such a sense of loss when I reached the final page and had to wait for the next volume to appear. And those sensations, exhilaration and despair continued through to the final pages of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and realised that was it. All that was left was an intense void at the loss of the prodigious talent that was Stieg Larsson and an intense anger that he could give us no more of the narcotic fiction he had addicted us to.
I was not easily appeased at the news that David Lagercrantz was attempting to continue the Millennium series. OK, I had read his brilliant biography of the wayward Swedish football genius that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a sports biography which is totally unlike any other. But did that give him the right, let alone the capability, to extend the series that Larsson bequeathed to us? In fact when The Girl in the Spider’s Web did fall into my lap (curtesy of that wonderful Mr Stotter, against whom I will hear no word uttered) there were a number of such continuities to be assessed. How did Lagercrantz compare with Larsson as a writer and story teller? How well would those wonderful constructs Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander fare in the hands of another? Would the ideological element which the avowed Trotskyist Larsson invested so heavily in the first three books evaporate under a new author with no acknowledged political pedigree? And finally, would the new book thrill and excite me as generously as its forerunners? I approached Lagercrantz’s book none too certain on any of those counts.
And now? The short answer is that I need not have feared. Am I the only reader who feels that Blomkvist has become less Blomkvist and more a living personification of Stieg Larsson? If I am right, I have no qualms about that and accept it as a much deserved tribute from one author to the other. And Salander? I am equally delighted to attest that Salander remains Salander, but is if anything a more attractive character in so far as we can see more of her positive characteristics and dwell less on her horrific background. And the plot grows, as with its antecedents, out of little into a story of truly mind-blowing proportions.
It is interesting to ponder what Stieg Larsson might have made of David Lagercrantz’s efforts. I suggest, and I hope it is an accurate assessment, that Stieg would have thoroughly approved of the new title and the author’s aspirations in bringing Blomkvist and Salander to new generations of readers. More than that Lagercrantz makes us confront some major issues in the same way that Larsson presented sexism, in its most pervasive forms, racism and fascism as the three greatest evils which affronted him. Lagercrantz is not on easy ground in that the concerns he addresses are more hidden and opaque to most of us. The focal point is the rapid growth of artificial intelligence and its value to governments, the military-industrial complexes of all national empires, as well as the various criminal conspiracies.
Lagercrantz unpicks this issue through a beguiling complex of subplots. Blomkvist’s reputation as an investigative journalist is on the wane. He must come up with a new explosive story to rekindle his reputation and to save the magazine Millennium from the clutches of a conservative publishing corporation which wants the brand but not the radicalism that comes with it. Salander is committed to taking computer hacking to new heights by hacking into the US National Security Agency computing system to find out what has happened to the criminal enterprises of her father, the infamous Russian spy who defected to the Swedish government which then protected him even as he abused Lisbeth’s mother, rendered Lisbeth into the care of corrupt social workers and psychologists, and built an international criminal underworld.
Lagercrantz completes this potpourri with the introduction of a Swedish professor of computer engineering who is fixated on the issue of what happens when artificial intelligence reaches such proportions it no longer requires human intelligence or even human beings. His own researches on the subject lead him to fear what would happen if the data fell into the wrong hands, and in this instance there are many wrong hands and an absolute paucity of right ones. He has more than his own life to care about having tardily taken responsibility for the upbringing of a young son he ignored for so long. A son who is autistic, does not speak, and has been abused by his mother’s actor boyfriend, but is also a unique savant whose genius extends to both arts and sciences – in essence another Salander but without the rough edges. Pitted against the goodies are the NSA desperate to keep its secrets under lock and key and to liquidate Salander if she persists her hacking, and the remnants of her father’s criminal empire which now has a new management equally determined to destroy Lisbeth.
How all this resolves gives us one of the most intensive and exciting crime fiction books, even thrillers, you are ever likely to read. Even that is an understatement as this is one of the best books you are ever likely to read, and one which will live in your memory long after you have turned the final page. Just to recommend it is not sufficient. I could almost suggest it should be compulsory reading. Of course, ultimately, there is one question left to be resolved. Will Lagercrantz be able to sustain the impetus into a fifth instalment of the Millennium series? I hope he doesn’t spend too much time on that question. My impatience for an answer is already at bursting point.