THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, by David Lagercrantz. Alfred A. Knopf, 416 pp., $27.
Book lovers have plenty of reason to disbelieve the hype this year. First, "Fifty Shades" fans were whipped into a frenzy, as it were, for the nonevent that was E.L. James' "Grey." Then Harper Lee's readers had the dubious pleasure of meeting the racist new Atticus Finch in "Go Set a Watchman." Now it's happening to Stieg Larsson loyalists. The Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist who appear in "The Girl in the Spider's Web" -- the fourth installment of Larsson's "Millennium" series, which goes on sale in the United States on Sept. 1 -- are stiff, unappealing puppet versions of the characters who sold more than 80 million books worldwide and inspired both Swedish and American film versions.
At least James and Lee wrote their own duds. Larsson died in 2004, before "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its successors were even published. This crime against his characters is committed by a hired gun, a Swedish writer named David Lagercrantz, selected by the Larsson estate to continue the series.
To avoid leaks to the media, Lagercrantz produced the book on a computer with no Internet connection. After he delivered it by hand, according to reports in The Guardian, he was sent to a remote Finnish island.
As the veils come off, readers are in for changes to the series' essence. Instead of focusing on violence against women and sex crimes, Lagercrantz has woven a plot around computer hacking and corporate security breaches, a rather duller territory.
But the more serious problem is that he doesn't get the characters. The first sign is the drinking. People who famously swigged coffee on every other page have switched to booze, trying to forget their troubles. Blomkvist, once the James Bond of Swedish journalism, is now washed up, mocked on Twitter and more worried about his flagging career than about injustice and evil. When a young colleague falls into the hands of murderous bad guys, Blomkvist merely hopes for the best and gets to work on his magazine story.
Salander, the pierced and tattooed genius played onscreen by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, is even less recognizble. Lagercrantz doesn't do elfin goth; the character has been reduced to the scary freak her detractors in earlier books mistook her for. With no explanation, Salander has been out of touch with Blomkvist. Though the last book ended with her letting him back into her life, their relationship continues only via text message here. Meanwhile, her past is mined to dig up a new malefactor, adding a number of unlikely details to her back story.
The new characters vary from wooden to silly, like the high-level analyst from the NSA who rushes to Sweden to meet with Blomkvist, saying super-American things like "Dream on, dude" and "peachy," and the new supermodel supervillain, "who look[s] like seven million dollars."
That sound you hear as the cone of silence is lifted? It's the moans of the fans. Maybe Lagercrantz should stay on that island.