Stieg Larsson

Posted on January 8, 2011


Man of Mystery

Why do people love Stieg Larsson’s novels?

by Joan Acocella

Having got American readers to buy more than fourteen million copies, collectively, of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books—“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008, American edition), “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009), and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)—the management at Knopf has decided that it would like them to buy some more. So the company has issued a boxed set: the three crime novels, plus a new book, “On Stieg Larsson,” containing background materials on the late Swedish writer. If you have been in a coma, say, for the past two years, and have not read the Millennium trilogy, about a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and a computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, battling right-wing forces in Sweden, the set, at ninety-nine dollars, is not a bad bargain. But if you decided to pass on the novels your resolve should not be shaken by this offer. As for “On Stieg Larsson,” don’t worry. It is a small thing—eighty-five pages—and nothing in it solves the central mystery of the Millennium trilogy: why it is so popular.

Larsson, who was born in a village in the north of Sweden in 1954, was an ardent leftist all his life. In the nineteen-eighties, because of immigration, Sweden, like other European countries, saw a sharp increase in racism. Suddenly, there were neo-Nazis and Aryan leagues, and the people involved were no longer crazed souls operating mimeograph machines in basements but smooth characters, in suits, running for public office. In 1995, Larsson and some friends in Stockholm founded a quarterly magazine, Expo, with the declared mission of safeguarding “democracy and freedom of speech by . . . documenting extremist and racist groups in society.” Expo was undisguisedly the model for Millennium, the journal that is Blomkvist’s home base in the trilogy.

Larsson’s anti-authoritarian writings won him and Expo many enemies. The printers and distributors of the magazine had their windows smashed. Larsson received death threats. He took precautions. He allowed no photographs. In restaurants, he and his companion, Eva Gabrielsson, sat so that he could watch one exit, she the other.

Despite all this, Larsson is said to have been a happy man, who lived the life he wanted. He smoked three packs a day, subsisted on hamburgers, and often worked around the clock. He consumed popular novels, especially crime fiction, by the cartload. And then, in 2001, in a move that no one has been able to explain satisfactorily—and about which, for a long time, he told almost no one—he began writing crime fiction. Later, he said that he did it for fun. Or he said that it was for money—that the books were going to be his “retirement fund.” He wrote fast, easily, and late at night. By 2003, he had the trilogy’s first volume, which, in English, is called “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” This is a rather conventional detective novel, except that the villains are Nazis and neo-Nazis, and the crimes are unusually grisly: incestuous rape (homo and hetero), plus murders of the most appalling sort. One victim is gagged with a sanitary napkin and stoned to death. Another is tied up and placed with her face in a bed of dying embers.

Larsson submitted the manuscript to Piratförlag, a publishing house with a strong line of crime novels. The editors there never opened the package. (They did not read manuscripts from first-time authors.) Today, one almost pities them. The publisher that accepted the Millennium trilogy—Norstedts Förlag, the second firm Larsson contacted—has sold three and a half million copies of the books.

The editing went slowly, because Larsson was always overscheduled. “On Stieg Larsson” contains a series of e-mail exchanges between him and his Norstedts editor, Eva Gedin. In them we find Gedin asking Larsson politely, but with increasing emphasis, to make room in his schedule to meet with her and hear her editorial suggestions. He responds blithely that he will do so, eventually. One afternoon, seven months after the contract was signed, he went to work at Expo, found that the elevator was broken, climbed seven flights of stairs, had a heart attack, and died. He was fifty.

In part because Larsson was not alive when the books were published, the Millennium trilogy has been surrounded by a number of controversies, the juiciest being the question of who should be receiving the fortune the books have earned. The most deserving beneficiary, as many people saw it, was Eva Gabrielsson, who was not only Larsson’s companion for three decades but who also, at various times, supported him, not to speak of putting up with the fact that he normally came home around midnight. The two of them never married, however. Larsson—and, later, Gabrielsson—said that this was a way of protecting her; she would not run his risks. Years earlier, Larsson had written a will leaving his entire estate to the Communist Workers’ Party of his home town, but the will was not witnessed and therefore was not valid. When Swedes die intestate, everything is awarded to their kin—a strange law in a country where unregistered unions are almost the rule. In any case, Larsson’s money has gone to the two surviving members of his immediate family, his father and his brother.

These two men were not unaware of the awkwardness of their position. They gave Gabrielsson Larsson’s half of the apartment that she shared with him. They also proposed to pay her $2.7 million, by way of a settlement. She refused this offer, at which point the dealings between the two parties grew nasty. Gabrielsson told the press that Larsson had been alienated from his father and brother. They, in turn, suggested that Gabrielsson was psychologically disturbed. The story became even more exciting when the news got out that Gabrielsson had Larsson’s laptop, which, according to several sources (including her), contained more than half of a fourth novel, plus notes for the remainder—in other words, enough material so that someone else could finish it and it could still be called a Stieg Larsson novel. (Some of Larsson’s associates say that he had plans for ten novels, and had started the fifth as well as the fourth.) Does Gabrielsson really have the laptop? At one point, she told the press that she had given it to Expo. Elsewhere, she has said, “No comment.” Reportedly, we will find out the answer when Gabrielsson’s memoir is published, next year. Meanwhile, a lot of people think that she has been terribly wronged. If you call up, you can make a contribution to her upkeep.

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