Himalayan climax

While you read, you’re back in the glam-but-dark world of Lisbeth Salander, with her hacking and her social anxiety and her determination to do the right thing, writes P S Nissim

The Girl Who Lived Twice, David Lagercrantz Penguin, pp 368, Rs 443

It’s almost a rule for thriller fiction lovers: a new Lisbeth Salander book comes out, and we have to read it. Steig Larsson, unfortunately, passed away after writing the first three installments of her story, but David Lagercranz has continued the legacy well in a second trilogy of sorts. The Girl Who Lived Twice, the newest volume, is the culmination of this second trilogy.

Lagercrantz introduced a major new character into Salander’s world in his books: her psychopathic, yet dazzling sister, Camilla. Where Salander grew up hating her gangster father Zalachenko, Camilla had a sickly fascination for him. Now, finally, the two sisters face off against each other, knowing only one can survive, but unsure whether they have it in them to kill the other. But in order to get to her sister, Salander must disappear from her apartment in Stockholm and go undercover. Her friend and partner-in-crime, Mikael Blomkvist, is worried about her, but has no way to find her. In any case he’s busy with his own work for his magazine.

Soon Blomkvist is caught up in a mystery of his own. A beggar dies near his home in the street, with a suspicious amount of drugs in his bloodstream. No one seems to know who he is, but he has Blomkvist’s name and number in his pocket. Further examination reveals that he’s not native to Sweden, but belongs to South Asia. And before he died, he spoke of a deadly secret related to Sweden’s defence minister — a man supposed to be upright and honest.

More characters are drawn into the mystery: a glamorous reporter who was accosted on the street by the beggar (and who now commences a relationship with Blomkvist), and a forensic analyst who’s intrigued by the toxicology report on the body. There isn’t much headway until Blomkvist sends out the DNA profiling report of the beggar to Salander to study. And of course it’s Salander that makes the breakthrough: the profile shows a rare gene that’s unique to a single community. Blomkvist traces the man to a doomed Himalayan expedition of a few years ago. The expedition made headlines for the death of a prominent socialite of the times. But Blomkvist discovers that several other people on that expedition had strange histories — and they weren’t in the expedition purely for mountaineering glory. And here, finally, is a link to the defence minister who was also a part of the group. But does this story implicate the minister in a crime — or does it absolve him of guilt?

In the meantime, Camilla has been tracking Lisbeth through Russia and through Sweden. Accompanying her are Zalachenko’s criminal associates, who have accepted her leadership. Although Lisbeth is too smart to fall into her traps, Camilla realises that Mikael is her weak spot. Once again, Mikael is drawn into Lisbeth’s past, as he attempts to stay one step ahead of both Camilla’s gang, and the shadowy organisation that’s hiding the truth of the Himalayan expedition.

It has to be said that Lagercrantz has gotten better with all these characters as the series has progressed. The original trilogy by Larsson is still some of the best thriller writing around — but Lagercrantz has gotten closer to that world in this installment. There is the same sense of pace, of things moving too fast for the characters to control, and of a large number of clues building up towards a big reveal. Larsson’s mysteries usually merited the long buildup they got in the books, and this current book has somewhat of the same flavour.

A lot of the appeal in the original trilogy came from their tipping over from a simple interpersonal mystery or crime, into exploration of a societal problem. Larsson’s stated intention was to highlight hidden issues like the casual attitude towards womens’ abuse, the festering Nazism in Swedish society, and the callousness of government towards truth. The original name of the first book, after all, was Men Who Hate Women. Lagercrantz underplays this angle, bringing in the larger malaise late into the story. Instead, he focuses on the action and on the immediate mystery to be solved. That’s probably an inevitable outcome of treating this as an indefinitely-prolongable series instead of the seven-parter that Larsson had planned.

But all these thoughts come to you a long time after finishing the book. While you read, you’re back in the glam-but-dark world of Lisbeth Salander, with her hacking and her social anxiety and her determination to do the right thing. Go, read.

 

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