Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz’s authorized sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series raises the age-old question of who owns an author’s characters and stories. Ian Fleming’s James Bond lives on after his creator’s death, as does Bourne and the Marvel comics characters, who are in vogue today.
Breathing new life into another writer’s creation requires great skill and an acute understanding of the characters’ habits, motivations, manner of speaking, and psyche. It’s not a job for amateurs. Larsson’s legal heirs authorized the sequel over the strong objections of Eva Gabrielsson, his long-time partner. While Lagercrantz makes an admirable attempt to recreate the Stieg Larsson legacy, this book, in my view, falls short.
Lagercrantz spins an overly complex plot that centers on cyber-theft on a grand scale. This complicated web involves the National Security Agency, high-tech companies, and Russian mobsters. On top of the tangled plot, Lagercrantz weighs down the pacing with lengthy character introductions and explanations of arcane technology.
The story doesn’t take off until Professor Franz Balder, a leading authority on Artificial Intelligence and a brilliant computer scientist, contacts journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Balder fears for his life as he suspects powerful forces are scheming to steal ground-breaking technology he is developing for a high-tech Silicon Valley company. Balder returns to Sweden to care for his severely autistic eight-year-old son, August, and he is convinced his life is in danger.
Meanwhile, Blomkvist fears he is washed up as a journalist. Millennium, the magazine where he made his mark as an investigative journalist, has been sold to a corporate giant bent on cutting costs. Blomkvist is desperate for a story to save his career when he meets with a young hacker who tells a tale about a cyber theft conspiracy. The story doesn’t interest Blomkvist until the young man mentions that Balder sought help from Lisbeth Salander, the vigilante hero of Larsson’s earlier work and Blomkvist’s sometimes accomplice.
Concerned about his safety, Balder reaches out to Swedish law enforcement and also contacts Blomkvist. Summoned to the professor’s home, Blomkvist arrives on a cold November night when the murder of Balder is in progress. Balder’s autistic son witnesses the murder, but is unable to speak about it.
Blomkvist confirms Balder had hired Salander to confirm and investigate the theft of Balder’s technological breakthrough. Salander was working at the time on a side project for a group called the Hacker Republic, which sought to gain access to the NSA’s top secret servers.
The key to unlocking the identity of the murderer, the child August is returned to the custody of her mother, Hanna, a down and out actress, and her abusive boyfriend. The child begins drawing pictures of the murder scene, but Hanna doesn’t realize what he is trying to communicate and she eventually commits him to a psychiatric facility. The mobsters find out where the boy is staying at the same time as Salander, which provides one of the best dramatic scenes as Salander rushes frantically to rescue the boy before he is killed.
This is where the story gains steam and the pacing of the second half of the book is much better than that of the first half. The pacing improves because Lagercrantz actively involves Salander in the story.
While Salander is protecting the boy and coaxing him to solve his father’s murder, Blomkvist and Swedish law enforcement agencies are unraveling a series of corrupt activities that include corporate cyber theft, organized crime, and the U.S. government’s role in selling technology secrets.
One of the flaws of this story is that Blomkvist and Salander barely appear together or speak to each other through large sections of the story. When a writer has powerful assets like Bloomkvist and Salander at his disposal, he must use them.
At times, Lagercrantz was able to achieve the page-turning qualities of Larsson’s earlier work. The problem is that it didn’t happen often enough.