The Girl in the Spider's Web, the fourth entry in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series and one of the most highly anticipated novels of the year, arrives in bookstores on Tuesday, more than five years since the third instalment was published in North America. The latest volume continues the adventures of crusading investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, genius hacker Lisbeth Salander and other characters from the bestselling trilogy, which has sold more than 80 million copies around the world since the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was released in Sweden in the summer of 2005, less than a year after Larsson's death at age 50.
While Larsson's name still appears on the cover of the latest novel, which will be simultaneously released in 26 countries around the world, this time it is joined by that of David Lagercrantz, who was handpicked by Larsson's publisher to (somewhat controversially) continue the series.
Lagercrantz has a similar pedigree to Larsson; a Swedish journalist-turned-novelist, he's the author of nine previous novels and works of non-fiction, the most recent of which, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the memoirs of the soccer superstar, is the fastest-selling book in the country's history. Lagercrantz was having a drink with his literary agent a couple of years ago, discussing his next project, when he mentioned that, as a former reporter, he enjoyed getting assignments. Her face lit up, he recalls, and the next time they met she offered him the assignment of a lifetime.
"She asked me if I maybe would consider continuing the Millennium series. I didn't believe it. I thought it was a crazy idea," he says, adding he doubted the veracity of the offer until he met with Larsson's publisher later that summer – a meeting that, in a detail that could have been stolen from Larsson's work, took place "in a cellar," out of view. "It was a [rival] publishing house, so I couldn't be seen. They sort of smuggled me in. And for the first time I started to understand that this was really serious. … I remember walking home in a sort of fever."
Lagercrantz, who turns 53 a few days after the novel's publication, recently spoke with The Globe from his publisher's office in Stockholm. He was preparing to embark on a months-long global book tour that touches down in Toronto on Sept. 17. ("It's going to be absolutely crazy," he says with a laugh. "I hope I will survive.") Yet, for a man who describes himself as "always a bit of a neurotic," he seemed quietly confident in the book he's produced, the plot of which involves a murdered computer scientist developing a form of artificial intelligence, a gang of underworld hackers, an autistic boy with a hidden ability, an abusive movie star, the U.S. National Security Agency, the shaky financial future of Blomkvist's magazine, and a figure from Salander's troubled childhood.
"To be honest, the magnitude of the project did me good," Lagercrantz says. "I have this reporter's temperament still in me – I thrive under pressure. I was terrified. I had nightmares that the world would mock me and say I'm a disgrace, and how could [I] write Stieg Larsson's book this lousy.
"I worked harder than ever to live up to him. I tried to be worthy of him. He was the brilliant genius who invented this world. I tried to step into it."
Did you know Stieg Larsson?
No, I'm afraid I didn't. I'm so sad about that. The thing is that I didn't know he existed. Now he's such a legendary figure, of course, not just because of his crime novels but also because of his work against racism. He founded this paper, Expo, but back in his day. Expo was a very small paper and right-wingers and racists were quite few. Now, for God's sake, we have them in parliament. He was such a brilliant person – he saw what was coming. Sweden has changed so much.
Why do you think his work remains so popular?
His stories are so complex. A conventional crime story is simple – it's just a corpse in the river or something, and a detective with an alcohol problem. But the main reason is that he invented an absolutely iconic character. I think we invent this kind of character just a few times every century – in the 19th century we had Sherlock Holmes. Lisbeth Salander [is] a terrific figure in so many ways. I can talk about her forever. I was honestly scared to death, just as the villains are – I was so scared that I couldn't do her justice. And in the beginning I had problems with her, I put too much emotion in her, and she doesn't really suit emotion. You have to feel her anger, her urge for revenge, between the lines. She's the underdog, striking back. I had nightmares about not being worthy of Lisbeth Salander. What's extraordinary about Lisbeth Salander is that not only is she a brilliant person, but what makes her interesting is her mythology, growing up in this home with this evil, evil father, raping and abusing her mother. She had to grow up too early and take revenge herself. Just like Batman's mythology – he fights for justice in Gotham, but he still is revenging the murders of his parents. And it's a bit the same with Lisbeth. She also has her own agenda. She's the revenging figure.
Is it true that you wrote this novel on a computer unconnected to the Internet?
It's absolutely true. That was kind of crazy, because the NSA has a big role in the book. I sort of lived in the same world that I was writing about. We used code words, we didn't e-mail anything, even the editor couldn't work on a connected computer. We sent the book with a personal courier. We were really paranoid.
Besides your editor, did anybody else know you were writing this novel? Could you even tell your family?
My family, of course. I must have someone to talk to. My 94-year-old mother did as well, because I knew she would keep a secret. But otherwise nobody knew.
Was it a difficult secret to keep?
Yes! I'm not a secretive guy. I'm talkative. You want to come out and tell the world.
The novel's plot hinges, in part, on a computer scientist pursuing artificial intelligence. Do you think it's something you'll see in your lifetime?
The capacity of computers is doubling every eight months. It's exponential development. I think it's a real threat, actually, that a computer one day will be more intelligent than us. Just a couple of years ago that was just science fiction, but now I think people, clever people like Stephen Hawking, are really worried about it. I'm very interested in the brain – I wrote about Alan Turing, the inventor of AI [in his 2009 novel Fall of Man in Wilmslow]. As Alan Turing said, why shouldn't we create intelligence in materials other than something that looks like a pile of porridge, as our brain does. So I think it's a real threat, and we have to think about that because no one will slow down the development. You can't say to the guys at Apple or Microsoft or Cisco, 'Come on, don't do your research, take it slow.' The competition is so high. They want to develop the most intelligent machine they can.
Were you trying to write like Stieg Larsson?
I didn't use my most literary prose, as I did when I wrote the Alan Turing book, because Stieg Larsson – he's this great storyteller but he uses journalistic prose. They're fast-written books. I tried not to be too literary.
Stieg Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, isn't pleased about the novel's release. She told The Guardian that 'I don't think it's okay for people to hijack other people's work.' Do you think that's what you've done?
This has been the thrill of my life. I've never been so passionate about anything in my whole life. The only thing that really troubles me, and makes me sad, is that I make her so angry. But what I know now, for absolutely sure, is that this is good for Stieg Larsson's authorship. Now a new generation is reading his books. I deeply respect her views, and all that she's gone through, but she and her friends keep on [saying], 'Let his books rest in peace.' And I can tell you that I've never, ever, met a writer that wants his [books] to rest in peace. Every author wants to be read and discussed. And now we are reading his books again, we are discussing them again, and we are discussing his life's work – his courageous fight against racism. So I'm sad for her, and I deeply respect her, and I'm so sorry for her. But I'm sure this is good for Stieg Larsson. It will make him even a bigger legend.
The ending leaves open the possibility of further sequels. Are you committed to writing more of these novels?
We are certainly discussing that. But I will not be Stieg Larsson for my whole life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.