In a 2010 piece for Slate, Michael Newman argued that Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant, fearsome hacker heroine of the hit Millennium series, deserves better than the man who created her. “Of all the unlikely triumphs of Lisbeth Salander,” he writes, “the most gratifying is her victory over Stieg Larsson.” This victory came in more ways than one: The Swedish author and journalist died in 2004 at the age of 50, after handing over the manuscripts for the first three books, but before seeing a single published copy or reaping any of the profits from the 80 million copies sold worldwide, not to mention the four film adaptations in Swedish and English.
With Larsson no longer around, Newman posited, “maybe now someone else can pick up Salander’s story.” His wish was granted earlier this month with the publication of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a continuation of the series written by the Swedish writer and biographer David Lagercrantz. The most prominent name on the cover is Lagercrantz’s, then the words “A Lisbeth Salander Novel,” and then in smaller type at the bottom, “Continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series.” It’s clear, without so much as cracking the spine, that the girl with the dragon tattoo has outlasted her creator.
Larsson’s legacy is complicated by a messy battle between his father and brother—both of whom inherited the bulk of his property and approved this new book—and his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson. Excluded from his estate thanks to Sweden’s lack of legal recognition for common-law spouses, Gabrielsson has expressed her disgust at the fourth Salander novel in no uncertain terms. But the practice of writing new stories for iconic characters after their authors pass on is long-established, and is becoming increasingly popular in the era of the reboot, the remake, the franchise, and the fictional “universe.” This prompts questions of ownership that are both literal and philosophical. If authors die without dictating what should happen to their characters, who gets to decide their fate? When should stories end? And if characters become celebrated and beloved enough, do they stop essentially belonging to the people who created them?