Friday, 4 September 2015
The Girl In The Spider's Web
The Girl In The Spider's Web
by David Largercrantz
Regular readers of my reviews (and much thanks to those of you out there) may remember that I absolutely love Stieg Larrson’s original Millennium Trilogy... The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. I saw the various film incarnations of the series but, while I found them to be okay with some excellent performances, they felt like they were kinda missing the full flavour of the novels and compromised the characters quite a lot from who they were in the original books... especially when it came to Mikael Blomkvist and his relationships with various women, such as his special friend and lover Erika Berger. I also found they kind of over-simplified his relationship with the other great main protagonist of the book, Lisbeth Salander, to some extent. Similarly, and I feel this shouldn’t have been the case, the collection I read of the comic book adaptation of the first novel also seemed to be sadly lacking... to the point where I couldn’t even bring myself to review it on here.
Now, the thing is, I have real problems with The Girl In The Spider’s Web and I really wasn’t expecting to. Larrson died within, I think, a week or so after delivering his first three manuscripts to his publisher and never lived to see the huge, global popularity that his original trilogy holds. His partner of thirty years, Eva Gabrielsson, who is also a writer, apparently has the first 200 pages of the fourth in the series that Larrson started... but I don’t think she has the rights to do anything with them. These 200 pages and their mysterious contents are not what The Girl In The Spider’s Web was based on... this one’s a new story by David Largercrantz using Larrson’s characters.
Now there’s going to be a lot of prejudice about somebody carrying on the work of a much loved author and I can certainly understand that... to some extent. However, the fact that somebody else is having a go with his characters, even if it is obviously a decision based on publishing houses making money, as opposed to keeping the characters going, doesn’t really bother me too much... art has to be funded and good art is often sourced by questionable routes. My problems with this new novel are for reasons quite different but, before I lay out why this is not anywhere near a worthy successor to the original tales, I want to tell you why I feel that writers like Largercrantz should at least be given a chance to have a tinker with this kind of stuff.
Continuing characters independently from their original creators is really nothing new. It’s kinda laughable in some ways that there is sometimes such concern over this practice. Certainly in film it is rife. Nobody complains, for example, that people other than George Lucas wrote and directed movies like The Empire Strikes Back or Return Of The Jedi. Nobody worries that an episode of a film or TV series is produced by different writers and directors... so why should literature be different? Answer... it’s not. There are a whole wealth of characters who have been acquired and plundered past the sell by date or interest of the original creators. Only this Tuesday, for example, I reviewed a new Doc Savage novel written by someone many decades after the original writer had departed this mortal coil and, believe me, he’s a much loved character around some parts. Would anybody, by way of another example, be that worried if somebody wrote a new sequel to Alexandre Dumas’ Musketeer stories?
Now Mikael Blomkvist, Lisbeth Salander and their friends and enemies are much beloved characters for a lot of people but... I don’t think it’s that alone which has caused a number of readers to approach this new novel with more than a little trepidation. I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and her colleagues are a more 'recent' fictional phenomenon.
Oh well... like I said, I can understand it. However, when Michael Moorcock suddenly threw his Jerry Cornelius character out into the world for other writers to fashion stories for, before repossessing him again a little later... well I don’t think there was too much complaining going on in the 1960s about this kind of practice.
So if you’re going to avoid this new novel on the grounds that it’s been written by somebody other than Stieg Larrson, well... all I can say is that if you’re going to be more forgiving if somebody writes a new Sherlock Holmes or James Bond novel... you should really give some of our much loved new heroes a chance to shine with another writer. After all, Ian Fleming’s James Bond books did get a bit ropey and inconsistent towards the end of his time on the series. And another of my writing heroes, Patricia Cornwell, has her 'off days' too. No, if you’re going to go out of your way to avoid this novel, don’t reject it on that kind of skewed logic...
Reject it, instead, because it’s just not a very good novel... at least in terms of continuing the adventures of the characters from the original trilogy.
One of the things I’ve mentioned maybe once or twice on this blog is that one of my pet hates with writers is a lot of them tend to use the same voice for all of their characters. That is to say, the phrasing and way they speak sounds like it’s all cut from the same cloth, even though these imaginary people are all coming from different walks of life and are living in different communities. Now, okay, you can probably get away with identifying that this is merely the signature style of the author shining through... and depending on what components make up that kind of hallmark, I’d be willing to go along with that most times. However, I do often find myself wondering why writers can’t inject a little more realism into both the dialogue and the inner monologues which their characters express to the reader by making them sound a little different. Some of them can do it... but very few do.
In this novel, right from early on, I started noticing that there were repeat phrases being said or thought by different characters in different scenarios and often quite closely to each other. For instance, early on in the novel a character called Kraft says to someone, “I'll get straight to the point.” I was fairly alarmed, therefore, when I then came upon this sentence... "I'll come straight to the point," Brandell said just a page or so later. A different character with a different background using almost the exact, same phrase. This isn’t the character talking now... it’s the author. Or is it?
I have a very good friend who translates things for a living and when I batted about the idea with her that it could be a fault of the translator rather than the writer, she offered up a possible defence that it
could be that certain key phrases are used like that in everyday life by everyone. If it’s a common form of expression in the original Swedish, this could be an answer to this criticism... and I agree. That being said, though, the writer does seem to do it a fair few times in the book with a number of different phrases and that defence does wear thin when he does it so often. Bearing in mind that constant phrase repetition is not good for the art of fiction, unless done deliberately to evoke a specific effect, I think this writing style does need to be thrown into question... be it the original writer or the translator. And, yes, I know I also use certain key phrases myself, from review to review, but if I was writing ‘fiction’... I would certainly labour to keep that kind of thing to a minimum and absolutely try and weed it all out in the second or third pass at proofing and corrections.
Another thing that got to me is the obviousness of the book. It’s a tale which tells of mathematical geniuses, guardians of an autistic savant child, various worldwide policing agencies and, of course, the threat of withdrawal of funding to Millennium magazine. Explosive and exciting in terms of thriller writing is what I would say about this in general... if it wasn’t trying to be a continuation of the Millennium trilogy (which I am now more reluctantly forced to picture as only ever being a trilogy, it has to be said). But, yeah, also very obvious. Right from the second full chapter, I had detected the writer planting his characters and plot threads so he could come back and pull on them later and this transparency of technique really didn’t impress me all that much.
For example, and without going into too much detail, two of many new characters are introduced in the second chapter. By the end of the chapter I knew that one of them would soon have to be dead and the other was a set up so that, when he and Salander would be thrown into the mix together at some point, their common personality traits would mean that Salander would end up learning as much about herself as she helps this new character who only she could understand. Now, as it happened, all of this did indeed come to pass in the novel... apart from Salander’s character growth. Frankly, if the writer is going to set this stuff up so obviously, he could at least let Lisbeth learn a little more about herself in the process of looking after this new character. One thing I do know, though, is this...
If Larrson had written this... I would have never even seen the set up and its consequences coming half a book before they happened.
It also doesn’t help matters that Largercrantz seems to have totally ignored the existence of certain characters and their continuing story arc from the previous novels. As an example here, I give you the case of one of my favourite characters, the muscular Monica Figuerola. She was a major presence in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (at least in the book... not in the film) and by the end of the book she was romantically involved with Mikael Blomkvist to the point where Blomkvist had pretty much given up sleeping with Erika to pursue the prospect of a more or less monogamous relationship with Figuerola. In The Girl in The Spider’s Web, however, the character of Figuerola isn’t even mentioned. Nor are any of the consequences of her involvement with Blomkvist and the effects on how he relates to others in the book. It’s like the character never even existed and the slate is all magically wiped clean. Frankly, this is a really damning thing the new book gets wrong, not to pursue where these character’s respective journey’s would take them next in the overall narrative of their lives. She’s not the only character that gets this treatment and it’s a bad mistake to just ignore these fictional people and the thread they weave... as Largercrantz has done here.
Yet another thing that was worryingly obvious was the identity of a character called Thanos... yeah, I’ll get to that name check in a minute but hold on because I want to make this point first. There’s a character we only hear of in the original trilogy. The presence of this character is never really felt and buried in Salander’s past as an abused child. However, there’s a point in this novel, about half way through, when you see the big reveal of the major villain at least a hundred pages before it happens. I actually texted my friend and said something along the lines of... "I don’t believe it. I hope this writer’s not silly enough to make the identity of this character turn out to be Person X (name removed because I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers of the novel... even if you will get their depressingly first)." But then... yeah... he totally does it. Salander has her Moriarty figure in this book and I couldn’t be more upset about the character appearing in this way and of Salander’s ex legal guardian being able to fully articulate Salander’s history to Blomkvist in the most convenient way possible, also knocking that character’s credibility in the process. I found the inclusion of this character, well written or not, quite lame...
More so even than the fact that it turns out that Salander’s hacker name WASP is kinda ‘revealed’ here to be named after Janet Van Dyne’s character in Marvel comics... as are several of the other names including Thanos, of course, from various comics such as The Avengers. Turns out Salander is a big fan of Marvel comics (yeah, right) and so Ant-Man’s wife is where she got her hacker name from. Really? I love Marvel comics as much as the next person but do you really think Larrson would have written this in as the motivation of that character? Seriously? I find it hard to believe and as irritating as the constant Marvel Universe name checking that goes on throughout the book.
And my least favourite part of the novel was the fact that Salander and Blomkvist don’t seem to be themselves. They are just pseudo versions of themselves. They are dumbed down to a point where, although the writer is certainly trying to take them to ‘edgy’ places, they are much more humanised and less intense or credible versions of themselves. They weren’t quite unlike them but, at the same time, they weren’t quite the same either. It’s like the characters went to sleep next to an alien seed pod from Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers one night and woke up like “the first impression stamped onto a coin”. And I missed them. You only have to look at the very last scene in the book to see how untrue to the originals the Salander character has become. It may well be that she was always destined to do something like she does at the end of this one but... not that quickly, not like this and certainly not of her own free will to begin with, I would say. I’m all for character development and I’m sure I might well have accepted it had it come from Larrson’s pen... but it just seemed totally false to me and, along with the various other characters missing in inaction, it really put the final nail in the coffin of the book as far as I was concerned.
That being said, the novel is a quite fast paced and an exciting read. Certainly not the worst pulp I’ve read but, alas, not up there with the best of them either. However, a continuation of the Millennium series it most certainly isn’t. At least not for me and it’s made me want to find out what was in that 200 pages that Stieg Larrson left with Eva Gabrielsson even more. Largercrantz is an okay writer and I’d not shy away from reading others by him, even in regards to this series (because I will always be interested in seeing what other people will do with these characters)... but this a good, solid thriller. It’s not a good attempt at the further adventures of Salander and company, no matter how much I wanted it to be, and I would have preferred it maybe if somebody else had given this one a go... with no disrespect to Largercrantz because, frankly, it’s a huge task and he does the best he can with it, I’m sure. If you want fast paced action and some not bad characterisation... this might be for you. If you are a fan of the original trilogy, however, then I think you may find that The Girl In The Spider’s Web is not necessarily what you would hope it to be.
Lisbeth Salander @ NUTS4R2
Click on title to take you to review.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (2010)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Psychology Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl In The Spider’s Web