THE GIRL WHO LIVED TWICE by David Lagercrantz, translated by George Goulding. (Knopf. 349 pp., $27.95).
How you feel about the latest installment of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series depends on how much you crave the literary company of Lisbeth Salander. If you look to the ferocious hacker who punishes abusive men to provide you with a catharsis we seldom see in real life, you probably want to read on. Hard to blame you. We need a win whenever we can get one.
If, however, you require a coherent and compelling story, with the Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist you remember from Stieg Larsson’s original Millennium trilogy, you might want to skip this book. “The Girl Who Lived Twice” has one intriguing development, but far too often the book makes you wonder: Did we really need this?
The novel is split into two storylines. The first involves Salander’s continuing battle with her family members — in this case, her deranged twin sister, Camilla, who goes by the name of Kira to her Russian associates. In the other, the somewhat depressed journalist Blomkvist investigates the death of a homeless man on the streets of Stockholm.
Of the two, Blomkvist’s path is the more interesting, reflecting a new and troubling cultural change in the city. In the past, Lagercrantz writes, a vagrant on the streets would have been notable. “But nowadays you could hardly walk more than 50 yards without someone trying to touch you for a few kroner. There were women and men begging everywhere on pavements, outside shops, at recycling centres and on the steps leading down into the tunnelbana. A whole new broken Stockholm had emerged, and in no time at all everyone had got used to it.”
Blomkvist, who has been neglecting a story on Russian troll farms, is at first unwilling to unravel the man’s identity. But gradually, a fascinating secret emerges: The man was a Sherpa and linked to a high-profile Everest disaster involving a Swedish official.
Meanwhile, Salander has gone to Moscow to kill Camilla/Kira but can’t pull the trigger — literally. She “was paralyzed, inexplicably. All she felt was a shadow from her childhood sweep over her once more, and she realized that not only had she missed her chance, she now stood defenceless before a rank of armed enemies. And there was no way out.” Spoiler alert: there is a way out; this happens on page 32.
The plot grows needlessly complex, bogging down in a sea of names (there’s a reason Lagercrantz provides a list of characters and positions at the beginning). The characters seem off, too. Blomkvist broods and mopes, mooning over a woman with whom he shared a weekend. The old Mikael would have hopped out of bed, put on his pants and gone blithely on his way, clueless about any emotional devastation left in his wake.
As for Salander, she’s less of a punk but more of a caricature. She wears suits and has taught herself to read DNA sequences — as one does — and considers that she might be in love. Wait, what? The required revenge scene in which she confronts an abusive husband lacks tension, as if Lagencrantz only threw it in because readers expect it.
Picking up where a dead writer ends has its perils, but Lagercrantz’s Salander books have been bestsellers, and there’s no reason to think “The Girl Who Lived Twice” won’t climb the charts as swiftly as Salander can hack a cell phone. That Larsson died before witnessing his success is one of the more bittersweet stories in crime fiction history. That we’re seeing a decline of the memorable characters he created is bittersweet, too.