Writing a sequel to the Millennium Trilogy left David Lagercrantz in a quandary, says Andy Martinby Andy Martin / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
“What are we supposed to do with all the money?”
I should stress that David Lagercrantz only sounded like a character out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. He hadn’t robbed a bank. Instead he had recently published The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy. We were having dinner at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, cracking open a bottle of champagne to toast his success. But Lagercrantz is more ambivalent than appearances might indicate. Although his sequel has been a success in commercial terms, he has been attacked by Swedish literary figures. Henning Mankell said that he had “betrayed literature,” while others have accused him of being a “monster plundering a grave.” Lagercrantz, now working on a new Larsson novel, feels a little like a pop star who can’t quite work out why he has become so immensely popular—and unpopular—overnight.
Contemporary crime writing has recently taken a strong swerve towards Nordic Noir. In Scandinavian social democracies, as crime statistics have gone down, the popularity of “crime”—the genre that is—has gone up. In Norway, they have just finished shooting The Snowman, based on Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novel. Snow is good for showing up blood, of which there is plenty in Nesbo’s world. In Copenhagen, the Danish capital, it’s all about the television series The Bridge and Forbrydelsen (shown in the UK as The Killing but which should really be translated as Crime). Meanwhile Stockholm is also home to the creator of Intercrime (as shown on BBC4), Arne Dahl. This story begins with Stieg Larsson. Or maybe before that with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö back in the 1960s, and their police procedural Martin Beck series (Roseanna, The Laughing Policeman) and, later, with Henning Mankell and his more provincial Inspector Wallander. But Larsson streaked past them all. There is a theory that the enormous success of his Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) owes a lot to the death of the author. Larsson finished the books, signed a publishing deal, and then promptly dropped dead aged 50 after walking up seven flights of stairs. It was a brilliant piece of inadvertent self-publicity.
The Millennium Trilogy, introducing Lisbeth Salander, the hacker with the dragon tattoo, and Mikael Blomkvist, heroic journalist, became a huge global hit in both book and cinematic form. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest was the biggest-selling book in the United States in 2010 and the series has sold over 80m books worldwide. Larsson took the Swedish template and injected a dose of Hollywood aesthetics, with more violence against women (the original title of the first book, in Swedish, was Men Who Hate Women), lumbering giants who feel no pain, hairy bikers, vast conspiracies, and the revenge of women against men (especially the tyrannical father).
“Stieg Larsson’s death left his long-term partner and collaborator Eva Gabrielsson in the lurch: she received not a krona”
Larsson’s death raised the complicated question of the Larsson legacy. He hadn’t made a proper will. His death left his long-term partner and collaborator Eva Gabrielsson in the lurch: she received not a krona. The immense fortune accrued by the trilogy went entirely to Larsson’s father and brother. Swedish law ruled Gabrielsson had no legitimate claim even though she had contributed to the books, and was in every respect—other than the one considered by Swedish law—“married” to Larsson. By contrast, the rest of the family had been, until publication, semi-detached from the author. Gabrielsson had in her possession several unfinished manuscripts and sketches for future novels written by Larsson (who envisaged a series of 10). But she no longer had any rights over the work. Larsson, in dying, had dropped the baton. The person who picked it up and passed it on was Magdalena Hedlund, a shrewd literary agent in Stockholm. She brokered a deal between the Larsson family, now the owners of the franchise, and David Lagercrantz, whose most successful book at that point was I am Zlatan, a ghosted autobiography of the Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, notable for its outrageously boastful quotes and abuse of former team mates. (Lagercrantz later admitted the book was partly fiction—though the footballer’s recent boast on departing Paris Saint-Germain that “I came like a king, left like a legend” suggests that life is now imitating art.)
In 2013, Lagercrantz was given the job of coming up with a fourth Larsson volume, a sequel that would satisfy hungry readers of the original trilogy (the last book of which had been published in 2007). The Girl in the Spider’s Web was published in September. Gabrielsson thought the Lagercrantz sequel should never have been published. So far as I could work out, most Swedes (with the exception of his agent) hate him for it. Elsa, a theatre costumier in Stockholm, told me that Lagercrantz was a “pirate” not an “artist” and that she refused to read his work “on ethical grounds.” Lee Child’s review of the book in the New York Times alluded to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, implying that Lisbeth Salander, though technically brought back to life, had become a malformed zombie.
None of which prevented The Girl in the Spider’s Web becoming a massive hit. (The film deal was going through while I was in Stockholm.) Appetite grew by what it fed on. At the last count, it has sold 3.5m copies worldwide. Lagercrantz adopted the cool but melodramatic style of Larsson, but boldly turned the hardcore Salander into an almost maternal figure.
The more surprising twist in the tale, though, is that Lagercrantz is deeply ambivalent about his own work. He half-hates himself for writing the book.
He lives in a spacious apartment on the South Island of Stockholm with his wife and son. He invited me to watch while he wrote the sequel to the sequel, due to be published in 2017, which he says is more like Raymond Chandler, more wise-cracking, more “hard-boiled.” Lagercrantz is security conscious. When he started writing The Girl in the Spider’s Web, he bought another computer that had to be completely isolated from the outside world. It was part of the deal with the publishers and the estate. They didn’t trust anyone. If he wanted to send emails or look up something on the web, he had to use his old computer. The new one was like one of Stockholm’s islands but without any bridges. He feared a hacker (like Lisbeth Salander), intent on breaking into his computer, stealing its contents and making a fortune. Industrial espionage, applied to literature.
Lagercrantz had been required to write a synopsis first and map out the whole plot in advance in order to convince the estate and the publishers. He told me: “I remembered this story from when I was a young reporter: a savant eight-year-old, who produced a detailed drawing of a traffic light. And I wondered what it would be like if he witnesses a crime.” And then he also wondered if the ruthlessly mathematical Salander could be given maternal instincts.
David described himself as a “snobbish neurotic” (and another time as a “neurotic snob”). He had been “driven mad” (or “schizo” or “manic-depressive”) by hour upon hour of interviews and signings and talk shows, trying to keep a smile on his face while being criticised. He had been filmed cracking up, kicking a door in because a news anchor had “gone too far” in his attacks. “It’s kind of tragic,” he told me. “You don’t enjoy it as much as you thought you would.”
He was still sensitive about the New York Times review: “Maybe Lee could put himself in his next novel,” he suggested, “and then [Jack] Reacher [Child’s 6’ 5” muscular hero] could bump into him and kick his arse.”
Lagercrantz’s father Olof, an esteemed literary critic and scholar of Dante, Strindberg and Joyce, kept telling him as he was growing up that literature had to be “serious” and anything “commercial” was trash. And yet here he was, writing about semi-literate footballers and tattooed female hackers. And making deals with Hollywood. To be or not to be a bestseller? Lagercrantz kept saying to himself that a book could be serious and commercial (“there is no contradiction”) but he didn’t really believe it. He felt guilty, even though he was enormously successful, and half-agreed with the people who denounced him. He had a notion of giving away much of the money he earned—possibly to the kids in the suburbs who could not all become footballers.
There was a Swedish word that came up a few times in our conversation: Pekoral. It means something between “gimmicky” and “kitsch”—or even, according to one dictionary, “drivel.” Lagercrantz tried to define it for me. “You’re a kid living under the stairs—but you’re secretly a wizard and the fate of the world depends on you; or like Disney, the young girl gets the prince. It’s awful, but you have to be close to that.’ Salander had a touch of the pekoral. “All good books,” Lagercrantz said, “have to be a little bit pekoral.”
While we were sitting together, a guy rang his doorbell and asked if he could come up and discuss literature. Lagercrantz told him over the intercom to send him an email. I said I thought that Stockholm was like an immense academy, made up of professors and students, and the students could come and make an appointment at any time to discuss some knotty aspect of their essays.
“Yeah,” Lagercrantz said, still a bit jittery. “But there is also the possibility that he wanted to break in and steal the next novel. That’s the only way they could do it. Physically remove the computer. The old-fashioned way.” At night he locks the computer in a safe. Just in case there is something rotten in the state of Sweden.