'Girl in the Spider's Web': The Feuds, Drama and New Author Behind the Series Revival

The Girl in the Spider's Web Cover - P 2015
Courtesy of Knopf

The Girl in the Spider's Web Cover - P 2015

Perhaps the team behind the new novel in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series takes the books a little too seriously, because the security cooked up to protect the Girl in the Spider’s Web from leaking seems to operate from the premise that franchise star Lisbeth Salander herself is after it.

The entire book was written on an air-gap computer — that is one totally disconnected from the internet — that was locked in a safe each evening, and the final manuscript was hand-delivered to the publisher. In late May, when a few journalists were given a sneak peek at Book Expo, the annual publishing convention in New York, the meetings were not held at the Javits Center where the convention was in full swing but at a nondescript hotel blocks away amidst secrecy and high security. Visitors were sent one at a time to a basement floor where they were greeted by a lone person keeping watch over the empty hallway. Laptops, cellphones and bags were dispensed with before the visitors were escorted into a small room whose curtains were drawn tight and handed a manila file folder containing a dozen or so typewritten pages. When visitors were done reading, they were shuttled to a windowless room at the other end of the hall where they were introduced to a lean fortyish man whose outfit (dad jeans and a dark dress shirt) and boyish energy (he jumps up to greet guests with a friendly gusto) provided an odd juxtaposition to the paranoia and hyper security.

Meet David Lagercrantz the little-known Swedish writer entrusted with the task of picking up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise from its deceased creator Stieg Larsson.

There’s a lot at stake with the new novel. The original three books were the publishing sensation of the early 2000s, selling upwards of 75 million copies worldwide. A Swedish language film trilogy grossed $204 million worldwide and made a star out of Noomi Rapace who played Salander. The next year, Sony Pictures released its high-profile, big budget adaptation of the first book starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara and directed by David Fincher. Though it grossed $232 million worldwide, middling reviews took the steam out of a sequel. If The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a hit it could help revive sales of the entire series, which have slowed considerably (Neilsen Bookscan reports about 50,000 print copies were sold in the U.S. so far this year), make a publishing star of Lagercrantz, whose previous books include a novel about codebreaker Alan Turing and co-writing the memoir of soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and most important from Hollywood’s perspective: revive the movie franchise.

If the book is a hit, it might also bring a pause to the feud between Larsson’s family, who control his estate, and his longtime girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson. Stieg Larsson and Gabrielsson had been together for thirty years but had never married. Larsson had no will, so per Swedish law his estate went to his father Erland and brother Joakin. When Stieg died of a heart attack in 2004 at age 50, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels were a few months away from publication. He was a well-known journalist, who started the muckraking left-wing magazine Expo, which was the inspiration for Millennium in the books. Larsson started writing the books in the early 2000s, joking to friends he was doing it to fund his retirement, and completed three before seeking a book deal. The series became an unexpected hit (the publisher’s initial hope was to sell 20,000 copies), opening up an ugly dispute between Gabrielsson, who was devastated by his death, and his family. She claimed Stieg was estranged from his family; they implied she was unbalanced. She wouldn’t give them access to Stieg’s laptop which contained a half-finished draft of a fourth novel and notes for as many as six more books. The Larssons offered Gabrielsson Stieg’s half share in their apartment and about $2.7 million. She spurned the offer, adamant that she be given control over Stieg’s literary estate. 

The movie deals and English-language translation caused more friction. Gabrielsson accused the Larssons of being greedy. (By all accounts, the Larssons live modestly in the provincial city of Umea and plan to donate some of the profits from the new book to Expo and other causes dear to Stieg). She also attacked the translation, originally done quickly so it could be read by American film companies and then heavily reworked by the British publisher, as a corruption of the the original book. The title was changed from the original Swedish Men Who Hate Women (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor) to the now familiar Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, names were changed, passages were polished.

Finally the Larssons, frustrated by their inability to come to an agreement with Gabrielsson, hired Lagercrantz to write a fourth novel from scratch, abandoning any idea of finishing that fourth story on Stieg’s laptop. Gabrielsson told Agence France Press that the selection of Lagercrantz was "totally idiotic." For his part Lagrecrantz tries to steer clear of the controversy. Larsson’s American publisher Sonny Mehta says empathetically, "The only sad part of this is really situation for Eva Gabrielsson, and I feel sort of empathy for her. I know that she has gone through — and I’m so sad that she is sad, and angry. But on the other hand, I know that there is so many people longing for the book," adding, "This has been one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done. I felt so much passion, and fun doing it."

Lagercrantz, who turns 53 on Sept. 4, was an unusual choice for the prize assignment. He had a slender track record as an author. Soccer star Ibrahimovic’s book was the fastest-selling in Swedish history but is not much at all like the Dragon Tattoo. His Turing novel was well-reviewed but not a particularly commercial book. His privileged background (he’s descended from a minor branch of Swedish nobility), engaging personality and rich family life (he has two sons with wife, Anne, a journalist, and one of his main concerns on this trip to New York is finding a bargain on a Barcelona FC jersey for his youngest) diverge from Larsson’s story.

Still he insists the two are not that dissimilar. Like Larsson (and for that matter, his fictional alter ego Mikael Blomkvist) he’s a former crime reporter, and he lives in the neighborhood where much of the action in the books takes place. Both men also drew inspiration from crimes they covered in real life to develop the plot of the books. Lagercrantz says the similarities run deeper that that as well. "I have the same moral anger toward greed and non-justice and treating women badly. We have the same interest in science and nerdy things."

The idea of taking over the Dragon Tattoo series was put together by his agent Magdelana Hedlund, who also represents the Larsson estate. (Before becoming an agent she worked in the rights department at Dragon Tattoo’s Swedish publisher). "We had some wine with lunch," recalls Lagercrantz. "I had the strange theory that my novel [about codebreaker Alan Turing] was not coming along" because the hero "was too much like me — neurotic, intellectual, weak, sort of hopeless." He told her that maybe he was best when he wrote about someone totally different but still fed his fascination with genius. "I saw something strange on Magdelana’s face and she asked me," he said of her pitch regarding the Larsson franchise. He hesitated at first but then "the fever" started growing in him, and at a meeting with Larsson’s Swedish editor he "banged his fist on the table and said, 'I’m born to do it.' "

The key for him was seeing Salander as a classic superhero after re-watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins with his sons. "I saw her like Spiderman or Batman. She was not just this great character. She also had this great background — this mythology — and I really felt that I wanted to develop it, dig into it. I was thinking about the mythology of these superheroes. Why this with bats? There are so many questions to be asked about Salander."

The Girl in the Spider’s Web largely delivers on Lagercrantz’s promise. Fans of the original trilogy will be pleased with his new installment. The novel is a smart, propulsive thriller and espionage tale with a timely digital age plot (think Snowden and Wikileaks). There’s all the techno talk of the first three but less of the blood, gore and lurid violence. True to his word, Lagercrantz’s Salander has that superhero vibe (in her own twisted punk way). It is easy to see that picking a novelist who wrote about the idiosyncratic genius Turing was a smart choice to write about the the idiosyncratic genius Lisbeth Salander. Lagercrantz also probes her backstory in a way that adds to the character. The early reviews have been favorable. The New York Times wrote that fans of Stieg Larsson "will not be disappointed by the latest installment. Salander and Blomkvist are just as compelling as ever." Britain's The Independent called it "a thrilling new intrigue" and "more intelligent than the average thriller."

Whether or not the new book will help revive the movie series is uncertain. Former Sony Pictures Chairperson Amy Pascal, who attached herself to the series as a producer as part of her exit package, isn’t talking about what the plans are for the books. Director David Fincher hasn’t said anything since September of last year when he expressed optimism about a sequel’s chances. But Lagercrantz is convinced the literary franchise is here to stay. "With certain superheroes, we need to go back to them. I’m absolutely sure Lisbeth Salander is one of them. She’s changed crime fiction."