The Girl in the Spider’s Web
By Miriam R. Kramer
A lifetime of reading has taught me that my favorite characters in a book are often the most perverse. One of my beloved fictional characters of the last ten years is brilliant Lisbeth Salander, the pierced, tattooed computer hacker in Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson’s three crime thrillers, which exploded as bestsellers on the international market. (I reviewed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in a previous issue of the Old Town Crier.)
Larsson died of a heart attack after he had finished the third book, leaving his loyal readers sorely disappointed that they would hear no more of Salander’s maneuvers in tracking crooks who, among other criminal acts, commit violence against women, and her partner in solving crime, the passionate, dedicated financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist. When I read that the franchise had passed to another Swedish writer, David Lagercrantz, I broke one of my cardinal rules this month in reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a recently published follow-up. I almost never read writers finishing other writers’ work and am against it in principle. The devil didn’t make me do it; Lisbeth Salander did. I missed her and had to find out what she did next.
Lisbeth Salander compels me because of her originality as a character. At 4’11” and 90 pounds, with dyed black hair and a sometimes wild, sometimes icy personality that registers somewhere on the autism scale, she has been a victim of the social welfare system since childhood and still erroneously looks like one. After having been mistakenly institutionalized until young adulthood after defending her badly beaten mother from her father, she is put in a psychiatric home, creating in her a deep mistrust of any authority figures, a strongly felt sense of right and wrong, the need to enforce justice as she sees it, a disdain for bureaucracy, a loathing of violence against women, and the tendency to defend herself through any means necessary. She relies only on the help of a very few friends and Hacker Republic, a small circle of fellow hackers, using her photographic memory and dazzling computer and mathematical skills to solve any problems that arise.
Training in a boxing ring is another of her undercover activities, allowing her to protect herself physically when needed. I love her ability to defend herself. She is a fierce fighter who can always find a way to win, either with her brains or by physical means. Stieg Larsson based her in small part on the wonderfully outrageous children’s character Pippi Longstocking, who also possesses that skill. Along with Salander, Larsson needed to create the journalist Blomkvist as a balancing counterpart. As an attractive man who likes women and co-owns a muckraking hard-news magazine named Millennium, he gradually earns her trust, develops a rapport, and helps her gain some sense of normalcy. They team up often throughout the first three books and the fourth to solve thorny criminal problems in the worlds of high tech and finance, among others.
As The Girl in the Spider’s Web starts, Frans Balder, a computer scientist who specializes in building artificial intelligence, leaves a tech company named Solifon and returns to Sweden to show responsibility and take care of his young autistic son, August. From his assistant, Mikael Blomkvist finds out that one of Balder’s video game inventions has been hacked and stolen, although Balder is more concerned about security surrounding his work on delicate and difficult A.I. technology. As a result, he beefs up alarm systems at his house and encrypts his phone and all communications, becoming paranoid in the process.
In the mean time, Alona Casales from the NSA alerts her colleague, Gabriella Grane at the Swedish Security Police, that there is a group of sophisticated Russian and Swedish computer criminals that performs industrial espionage and possibly murder. Balder may be in danger through finding out about them and those wanting to steal his work at Solifon. Her guess comes true. Balder and his mute young son are attacked but the assassin accidentally leaves his son alone, not knowing that August Balder is a mute savant who can create beautiful and precise drawings of the people he sees, as well as creating complicated mathematical equations. The Millennium team and Grane from the Swedish Security Police work together to find a safe place to shelter him from any return visits.
The incorrigible Salander, on the other hand, has hacked into the NSANet perfected by the NSA’s irascible senior security chief, Ed Needham, in her pursuit of information about the remnants of her criminal Russian father’s network, who are perhaps the same network Casales mentioned to her Grane, her Swedish colleague. Being Salander, she cannot help but cheekily tweak Needham on his supposedly foolproof system right when he starts to write the memo “I would just like to point out.” She finishes his sentence “that you should stop with all the illegal activity. Actually it’s pretty straightforward. Those who spy on the people end up themselves being spied on by the people. There’s a fundamental logic to it.”
While in the system, Salander downloads an encrypted file that may have information about her father’s remaining network, but she needs some help cracking it. When her path collides yet again with Blomkvist, she will find that help, and other kinds of assistance, from unexpected places, such as August Balder, the young boy she begins to protect. An autistic savant, he draws, computes, and looks like an angel. All these separate threads between organizations begin to tie together as Salander comes up against a very surprising but familiar enemy while working with Blomkvist and August to crack the file downloaded from the Puzzle Palace.
David Lagercrantz pleasantly surprised me with the decent quality of this follow-up to the blockbuster Scandinavian noir trilogy. His strength lies in his plot and its ripped-from-the-tech-headlines features. The book is not as long and detailed as Larsson’s work, and the characters are not as subtle, delineated or colorful. Yet the book carried me along. Throughout the novel, he introduces Larsson-appropriate facts and ideas about artificial intelligence, computer encryption, and the Darknet. In addition, he continues Larsson’s fictional examination of typical corruption in government agencies, companies, and other entities. Luckily for me, Lisbeth Salander yet again goes wherever she wants in cyberspace, as always off the official grid and into my imagination.