Lars Tunbjork for The New York Times
Stieg Larsson’s brother, Joakim, left, and their father, Erland, in their office in Umea, Sweden.
The Afterlife of Stieg Larsson
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: May 17, 2010
THE THIRD VOLUME in Stieg Larsson’s immensely successful Millennium trilogy, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” finally goes on sale here this month. Except for “Harry Potter,” Americans haven’t been so eager for a book since the early 1840s, when they thronged the docks in New York, hailing incoming ships for news of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop.” That was before Amazon. This time, particularly impatient readers simply paid a premium and ordered the new book from England, where it came out months ago (though with the apostrophe in a different place, making the “Hornet” plural).
Knopf, Larsson’s American publisher, has already printed 750,000 copies of “Hornet’s Nest.” It will almost certainly soar to the top of the best-seller lists, where the previous volumes, best sellers in hardback, recently occupied the top two paperback slots. What’s unusual is that unlike some other recent publishing juggernauts — the Dan Brownbooks, say, or Khaled Hosseini’s “Kite Runner” — the Millennium novels are not American in origin and were huge best sellers in Europe before most Americans got wind of them. Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, who bought the books for what he says now seems like a “very modest sum,” even worried that they might not catch on here. “I had nightmares that we would be the only country where the books didn’t work,” he says.
The novels come from Sweden, of all places, where the first one was published in 2005 and the next two over the following couple of years. They’re crime thrillers about a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, who works for the magazine Millennium, and his sometime partner Lisbeth Salander, a startling and strangely appealing character who is a tattooed and pierced, bisexual computer hacker. Together this improbable pair solve mysteries involving spectacularly corrupt businessmen and politicians, sex traffickers, bent cops, spineless journalists, biker gangs and meth heads. In fact, not the least of the attractions of the books for American readers is that they introduce us to a Sweden that is vastly different from the bleak, repressed, guilt-ridden images we see in Ingmar Bergman movies and from the design-loving Socialist paradise we imagine whenever we visit Ikea. It’s a country that turns out to be a lot like our own.
The plot of “Hornet’s Nest,” which involves a rogue, top-secret organization within the Swedish government, has elements of a John le Carré spy thriller. Like the other two Millennium books, it also has an outspoken feminist subtext, hardly a typical feature of crime novels. (In Swedish, the first volume, the one we know as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” has the grim, nonfiction-sounding title “Man Som Hatar Kvinnor,” or “Men Who Hate Women.” In France, for some reason, it’s “Les Hommes Qui n’Aimaient pas les Femmes,” or “Men Who Didn’t Love Women,” which sounds like a very different book altogether.) But in Sweden the books and their author — who died in an untimely fashion that some conspiracy theorists persist in calling an assassination — have lately become the center of another sort of story, the kind of thingAugust Strindberg might have written, full of intense, opinionated Swedish characters entwined in a saga involving envy, resentment, a contested legacy and a mysterious manuscript. At least one skeptic has even questioned how Larsson, a middle-aged man with no history of writing crime fiction, and seemingly no flair for it, could have written the Millennium books in the first place.
Larsson died in November 2004 — at age 50 — before any of the novels were published and with little clue to just how successful they would be. Like Blomkvist, he was a journalist, well known in certain circles for his campaign against right-wing extremism in Sweden, but hardly a household name. “To introduce a brand-new crime novelist like this, someone who is unknown, our goal was to sell 20,000 copies, but we thought 10,000 would be marvelous,” Eva Gedin, Larsson’s editor at the Swedish publishing house Norstedts, told me recently. “You could never imagine that the books would do so well.”
Larsson began “Dragon Tattoo” while on vacation in the summer of 2002, thinking of it as a kind of pension fund for himself and Eva Gabrielsson, the woman he lived with. He actually had a series of 10 books in mind, she says. The money from the first three would go to them, they figured, and the rest they would give to charity. Remarkably, he displayed none of the anxiety and impatience typical of first-time novelists and finished two entire books and most of a third before he submitted any of them to a publisher. He considered all three novels a single text and at one point wanted to number the chapters of the second and third volumes consecutively. Gedin says that Larsson never seemed in any doubt about their worth.
His was not a view widely shared. Mikael Ekman, a friend and protégé of Larsson’s who collaborated with him on a nonfiction book, recalls sitting with Larsson one night in 2001. “We were drinking a little too much whiskey,” he told me, “and Stieg started talking about what he’d do when he was too old to work anymore. He said, ‘I will write a couple of books and become a millionaire.’ I laughed at him. I thought he was crazy.”
Kurdo Baksi, another friend, had pretty much the same reaction a year later when Larsson told him he had written a thriller and offered to show him the manuscript. Baksi declined, saying: “Stieg, I don’t think you’re so good at literature. It’s not your business.” Baksi told me: “I thought he was joking. His talent was for writing about Stalin, Lenin, Bush — not for thrillers.”
Anders Hellberg, who was Larsson’s colleague in the late 1970s and early ’80s, goes even further and claims that someone else must be behind the Millennium books: Larsson himself was simply not good enough a writer. Larsson worked then as a graphic designer for Tidningarnas Telegrambyra, or T.T., a Stockholm news agency that is the Swedish equivalent of The Associated Press. He occasionally wrote longer pieces for T.T., as well as captions, and would ask for advice about his writing. “It was not good; it was impossible,” Hellberg, now a journalist at Dagens Nyheter, the largest and best of Sweden’s several morning papers, told me. “Every professional writer knows these things: you look at a text, and you can see this is terrible. Some texts are a little messy, but you can work them out; but here nothing was good — not the syntax, the way of putting things, nothing.”
But Hellberg left T.T. decades ago, I pointed out. Couldn’t Larsson have improved in the years since? Besides, it’s not as if the Millennium books are masterpieces of literary style. The prose is not the point.
“I don’t know, of course,” Hellberg said, shaking his head. “I don’t know. But I believe that to write is a talent. You don’t just pick up a guy from the bus station and expect him to be able to do it.”
Eva Gedin, the Norstedts editor, says she has no doubts whatsoever that Larsson wrote the books. “When you’re an editor, you get a feel for these things,” she told me. “It wasn’t one of those cases where a book is sort of half-written and you have to finish every other sentence. Stieg’s prose is really quite efficient. He was a tremendous storyteller.” The editing of the books went smoothly, she went on to say, and consisted mostly of cutting some of Larsson’s encyclopedic detail. The only thing Larsson wouldn’t budge on was the unsexy title, “Men Who Hate Women.”
A question that keeps coming up, though, is the role of Gabrielsson, an architect who is said to be a good writer and who, to make extra money years ago, translated Philip K. Dick’s novel “The Man in the High Castle” into Swedish. Gabrielsson herself has been evasive, in at least one interview hinting at something like co-authorship and in another backing away from that position. She now says that she has been misquoted so often that she will no longer discuss the issue and that the whole story will come out in her own book, to be published in France this fall. Nevertheless, I tried to press her a little. Is it fair to say, I asked, that while Larsson may have shown the books to her or discussed them with her, he was the author?
“I’m not sure you could say that,” she said and paused. “He did certainly write them himself — I think that’s fair.”
“But if he wrote them, then isn’t he the author?” I asked, a little baffled. “Or is that too simplistic?”
She smiled and said, “Yes.”
SPECULATING ABOUT Stieg Larsson and what he was like has practically become a journalistic subindustry in Sweden. “It’s like the fun-house mirrors in the Tivoli,” Gedin says. “Everything gets very complicated when you don’t have the author himself here to tell us.”
One clue, of course, is the books themselves, especially the Blomkvist character, who is clearly an alter ego of sorts. By the standards of Scandinavian crime fiction, peopled by brooding, depressed and friendless detectives who drink and smoke too much and eat appalling food, Blomkvist is remarkably cheerful and well adjusted, which is how friends remember Larsson. In the books, Blomkvist’s only flaw, if you can call it that, is a sex life that is the stuff of male fantasy. He is so attractive to women that they are always hopping into bed with him. Eva Gabrielsson says that’s merely a fictional device. “It’s just a way of opening up the character,” she told me. “He had to be interesting in some way. Without that he would have been a shadow next to Lisbeth Salander, which he was anyway.”
Salander is certainly the compelling figure in this partnership and the real source of the books’ fascination. In his cover letter to Norstedts, Larsson wrote that she was an “oddball” and something brand-new in crime fiction, and he was right on both counts. Salander is 24 when we first meet her but looks like a teenager. She’s elfin, barely 90 pounds, and has dyed black hair “short as a fuse.” Abused as a child and wrongfully institutionalized, Salander engages in dysfunctional, even autistic, behavior that might just reflect an understandable skepticism about human goodness and potential. She exists off the grid, really — having as little to do with people and institutions as possible and following an avenging ethical code of her own devising — and in the first novel makes a living of sorts as a researcher for a security firm, where she benefits from two spectacular assets: a photographic memory and wizardly computer skills. She can hack into anything.
Salander obviously owes something to Pippi Longstocking, the strong-willed character of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s books. But there is also something of Larsson himself in the character — more even than in Blomkvist, perhaps. They shared a diet consisting almost entirely of coffee and fast food, fanatical research habits and a single-minded, steadfast sense of justice and fairness. What keeps coming up when Larsson’s friends recall him is his idealism. Larsson’s friend Mikael Ekman, now a television producer and journalist, told me: “Stieg was a true idealist, a feminist, a believer in freedom. He dedicated his whole life to fighting the right-wing extremists. The biggest thing Stieg did was not the books. It was the work he did for democracy.”
John-Henri Holmberg, a Swedish editor, translator and critic who was a mentor to Larsson, wrote in an e-mail message: “He was very soft-spoken but held uncompromising views. He was a steadfast friend who would drop you entirely if you in some way proved not to be worthy of his friendship. . . . Among other things . . . he would not tolerate derogatory opinions of others based on their secondary characteristics, such as ethnicity or gender. Politically, in his youth, Stieg was a libertarian Socialist, active in a Trotskyite group; later on, I believe that he became more of a libertarian anarchist, but regardless of that the important part was his continual passion for liberty. And he would not suffer even previously close friends once he had reason to believe that in fact they harbored racist, sexist or prejudicial views.”
STIEG LARSSON WAS born in 1954 in Skelleftehamn, in what is known as Norrland, the northernmost part of Sweden. He mostly grew up in Umea, a town that is about 400 miles north of Stockholm but might as well be a world away. People in Stockholm, who pride themselves on their worldliness and sophistication, like to say that the people in the north are different; the people in the north, who are by and large less prosperous and cosmopolitan, don’t entirely disagree.
Larsson’s father, Erland, worked as a window dresser for years before getting a job as a graphic designer at the Umea newspaper. His mother, Vivianne, worked in a dress shop. When Larsson was 1, his parents moved to Stockholm in search of more opportunity and, unable to afford an apartment suitable for a child, sent Stieg to live with his maternal grandparents in Norrland. The arrangement was not unusual at the time, Erland told me, explaining, “Everyone our age was living under the same circumstances.” Eventually the grandparents moved to Norsjo, even farther away, but the families exchanged visits at Christmas and Easter, and Stieg came home for the summer. “He knew who his parents were,” Erland insisted.
He didn’t join them, however, until 1962, when his grandfather died, and by then he had a 5-year-old brother, Joakim. Stieg was artistic as a child and particularly interested in astronomy, Erland said, showing me a little notebook Stieg kept about the constellations. In another notebook he even wrote a novel as a 12-year-old, an Enid Blyton-like tale set in America. When Stieg was 14, his father bought him a typewriter on the installment plan, and he became such a nuisance, clattering away in the family’s two-room apartment, that Erland had to rent a room for him in the basement next door. “After that we never saw him,” he said, laughing. “He would come up just to eat and talk politics.”
By Larsson’s late teens, politics were his main interest, and he became an ardent supporter of the local Socialists. But he wanted to see the rest of the world. At 17, he hitchhiked to Algeria, and after 14 months of national service in the army, then still mandatory in Sweden, he went to Ethiopia, where he aided Eritrean rebels. Back home, at a rally against the Vietnam War in 1972, he met the like-minded Eva Gabrielsson, the 18-year-old daughter of a local journalist, and two years later they began living together. While working for the post office, he edited a Trotskyite magazine and together with Gabrielsson published several science-fiction fanzines.
Larsson was turned down by the Stockholm School of Journalism, where many of Sweden’s better-known journalists get their start, and became a graphic designer instead. Anders Hellberg, his former colleague at T.T., remembers him as a small, shy man who apparently lived on hamburgers and carried his belongings around in a plastic bag. Larsson worked nights, which left his days free for what was in many ways the great project of his life, writing and doing research for Searchlight, a British antifascist, antiracist magazine. Larsson so valued Searchlight that in 1995 he helped create Expo, a Swedish equivalent, for which the mission statement was “to study and survey antidemocratic, right-wing extremist and racist tendencies.” Expo, on which Millennium is loosely based, is now a handsome, well-designed, full-color quarterly that, while not awash with revenue, has attracted some powerful backers. In the beginning it was more like a black-and-white pamphlet and lost so much money that it almost went under.
The magazine nevertheless succeeded in upsetting the people Larsson was writing about. Right-wing extremism, a legacy in part from World War II, when some Swedes secretly supported the Nazis, was especially virulent in Sweden in the ’90s. Even before Expo, Larsson was the object of death threats from this quarter. In the early ’90s, a magazine put out by the White Aryan Resistance published his photograph and address and suggested that as an “enemy of the white race” he ought to be eliminated. And in 1999, when Bjorn Sodereberg, an antifascist trade-union leader, was assassinated by neo-Nazis, information about Larsson and Gabrielsson was found in the apartment of one of the murderers.
Inevitably this history has fueled speculation among the conspiracy-minded in Sweden, of whom there are many (including Larsson himself, to judge from his books), that Larsson’s death was planned. Three years ago, a man named Bosse Schon, who is a sort of professional Nazi hunter (and who might not have been averse to drumming up a little publicity for a TV documentary he had coming out), told Aftonbladet, Sweden’s leading afternoon daily, that he knew of a plot to kill Larsson, hatched in a pub years ago by a Swede who had served in the SS. But the evidence is close to overwhelming that Larsson died of a massive heart attack. Everyone agrees that he took terrible care of himself. He didn’t exercise, he smoked a lot and if he ever ate a green vegetable, no one has reported it. On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2004 — the anniversary of Kristallnacht, if you’re looking for an eerie coincidence — the elevator at Expo wasn’t working, and Larsson climbed the seven flights to his office, where he collapsed. According to Kurdo Baksi, his last words were, “I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!”
Larsson died without leaving a will. Like a great many Swedish couples, he and Gabrielsson never married — she was his sambo, as the Swedes say, his live-in companion — and they had no children. Oddly, Sweden, that model of social liberalism, has no provision for common-law marriage, the way many American states do, and so Larsson’s father and younger brother, who are not particularly literary, got everything: the rights to his books, the money, even half of the apartment that Larsson and Gabrielsson shared. This has made Gabrielsson, a complicated and fascinating character in her own right, an object of intense sympathy in Sweden, where seemingly everyone has an opinion about how Larsson’s estate should have been divided.
Legally Gabrielsson has no claim, but she has asserted a kind of moral entitlement. She also has a crucial piece of the Larsson legacy: a laptop computer containing roughly three-quarters of a fourth novel. According to Gabrielsson, in 2005 the Larssons offered to give her Stieg’s half of the apartment in return for the laptop. She refused, calling the offer extortion, and they eventually relented, very likely under the weight of public opinion, and let her have the whole apartment for nothing. Last November, they told a journalist that they were willing to settle the dispute for 20 million kronor, or roughly $2.6 million. Gabrielsson didn’t respond.
The Larssons and Eva Gabrielsson are barely speaking to each other anymore, but both sides have talked to the press, and a great many hurtful things have been said. Gabrielsson claims that Larsson was estranged from his father and brother and hardly ever saw them. The Larssons have suggested that Gabrielsson is mentally unstable. And in a television interview, Joakim pointed out, unhelpfully, that they had testicles and she didn’t.
The money, meanwhile, keeps pouring in. So far, there are some 27 million copies of the Millennium novels in print, and the books have been made into three very successful Swedish films. (The first, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was released here, with subtitles, in March.) Sales will doubtless get an additional boost in December 2011, when the first American film version, written by Steven Zaillian and directed by David Fincher, is scheduled to come out, followed in short order by films of the second and third books, which will be shot together. Scott Rudin, the producer, said recently that the deal was immensely complicated to put together, not only because there were so many parties involved but also because of the ongoing popularity of the series. “The books were still growing even as we were negotiating,” he explained, “so the price tag kept moving.”
BY HER OWN account, Gabrielsson was so shattered after Larsson’s death that it took her months to recover. When I met her in March she still seemed a little worn and grief-stricken. She is a smallish blond woman with a habit of rubbing at her mouth and gnawing at her fingertips. We had coffee one afternoon at Kvarnen, an old-fashioned, high-ceilinged restaurant that she and Larsson liked and that turns up frequently in the books. She was charming and animated one minute and, seemingly weary and wary of the press, quiet and withdrawn the next.
“A lot of people would have liked to get rid of Stieg,” she said, sadly. “I always thought I would hear one day that he had been killed.” She added that her sister told her something that helped her come to terms with his death: “At least it didn’t happen the way you thought it would, and so now you don’t have to hate someone for the rest of your life.”
Speaking of Larsson’s father and brother, she was occasionally sarcastic but more often resigned. “Stieg never was close to them,” she said. “That’s a history I cannot change. He was brought up by his mother’s father and mother for nine years, brought up far from his biological parents. What do you expect? You can talk to people who knew him when he was 12, when he was 18, when he was 35 — there was never any closeness. He is more like his mother, who died in 1991. The other two, they are completely different. Stieg moved to places, he traveled, he was street-smart. They are the opposite. It’s not just the childhood history. He really was different.”
Gabrielsson says she doesn’t care about money. She told me that all she wanted was her share of the apartment and control over Larsson’s literary estate, which she would administer in return for a small percentage of the royalties. The father and brother were in no position to know what he would have wished, she added, and already serious mistakes have been made. Gabrielsson says, for example, that Christopher MacLehose, a legendary editor and publisher who acquired the books in England and gave them their catchy titles, needlessly prettified the translation. The translator, Steven T. Murray, says that he feels the same way; he was so upset by MacLehose’s tinkering that he asked that his name be removed and a pseudonym be used instead. MacLehose pointed out to me that the translations were commissioned by the Swedish film company and were originally intended not for publication but to aid an English-speaking screenwriter whom the producers were hoping to hire, and for that reason they were done with unusual speed. All he did, he said, was polish and tighten them up a bit, the way he might with any translation.
Gabrielsson is also furious that Norstedts changed the name of one of the characters — the doctor who treats Salander in the third volume — from Anders Jakobsson to Anders Jonasson. Larsson frequently used the names of real people, and Jakobsson, a surgeon in Gothenburg, was a friend of his. But after Jakobsson and Erland got into an argument over how Gabrielsson was being treated, Erland demanded that Jakobsson’s name be removed.
THE LARSSONS SEEM unlikely to give up any control of the literary rights — they kept insisting to me that these rights are not transferable — and in any event many of the important decisions have already been made. Some people have suggested that Joakim and Erland were taken advantage of and should have negotiated a better deal with Norstedts and the film company after it became clear just how much money the Millennium franchise was worth.
Gabrielsson considers herself a shrewd businessperson. But at the same time, she has an odd, moralistic view of the books, which she seems to regard not as entertainment so much as didactic tracts. Larsson was able to write the books so quickly, she told me, because he felt “deep frustration and rage that things were sliding ever more downward,” and she added that the worldwide success of the books was in some ways unfortunate, because it seemed to reflect that corruption and abuse of power was a problem everywhere, not just in Sweden.
As for the novel on the laptop, she said she hoped that it would never be published. “They have made enough money, which is their main objective,” she said, referring to the Larssons. But the manuscript is her only bargaining chip, and she may be in the best position to know what needs to be done to make the text publishable. John-Henri Holmberg has guessed that because of the way Larsson wrote, often working on more than one book at a time, there may be a fair amount of outline and even actual text for a fifth book and possibly a sixth. The computer files are an enormously valuable property, because of readers’ appetites for more Larsson and because, as Scott Rudin suggested to me, of the movie potential. At the moment, film producers have rights to only the three published novels. A new contract could conceivably liberate Blomkvist and Salander from books altogether and allow them, like James Bond, to go on having movie adventures indefinitely.
I met Larsson’s father and brother at a brand-new office suite they have rented in Umea. There were a couple of desks and computers, some Millennium movie posters waiting to be hung and a shelf of awards that the books won from various mystery writers’ groups. Joakim Larsson, who worked for 22 years as an accountant at Ernst & Young before quitting to look after Stieg’s estate, looks a little like his brother and has some of the same conciliatory personality that enabled Stieg to listen patiently on the phone when right-wingers called up to rant at him. Erland, who is now 74, is sharper-tongued and more forceful. Practically the first thing he said to me, in his direct, Norrlander fashion, was that he didn’t understand why it took Gabrielsson so long to pull herself together. Both he and Joakim lost spouses, he pointed out, and they had soldiered on. “Eva Gabrielsson is very peculiar,” he added. “People say she was that way even as a child. She isn’t like everyone else.” There is some family history, it turns out. Years ago, Erland says, he lent some money to Gabrielsson’s father so he could pay the taxes on some land he owned. In return, he was given lifetime use of a Gabrielsson summer cottage.
At this point Gabrielsson and the Larssons can’t even agree on things like whether she was told when the books were officially being published or whether she was properly invited to the movie premiere. But the Larssons’ position on the estate is straightforward: the law is the law, and they can’t change it; and it’s fitting, they say, that any money left over in the next generation should go to Joakim’s two children and not Eva’s sister’s. Joakim and Erland also insist that there is a will of sorts: a letter Stieg wrote before leaving for Africa in 1977 and sealed in an envelope marked: “Contains my will. Do not open before I die.” This document was never witnessed and has no legal validity, which is probably just as well, because it leaves everything to the Socialist Party in Umea. But the Larssons see the letter as a partial clue to Stieg’s intentions. “He had 25 years to change it,” Joakim said. He added that he advised Stieg to get married, saying it was the “common-sense thing to do,” and that his brother made fun of him. Later, when the book contract was signed, he said, he kept urging Stieg to make a will until his brother became irritated.
When I suggested that in view of how much money the books had made, their offer to Gabrielsson of 20 million kronor didn’t seem particularly generous, Joakim turned to me and demanded, “How much money do you make?”
I said that wasn’t the point, but he insisted, “No, how much do you make?” So I told him, more or less, and he looked at me with something like contempt. “I do not need that much money,” he said. “I make $30,000 a year after taxes. For me, a good day is to go out in the woods and make a fire, have something to eat. I don’t have a Ferrari. I don’t have that taste.”
Erland explained that the 20 million kronor was meant not as a division of the estate but as a kind of living allowance. “It’s 20 million for her to live,” he said. “She can live very well with that money, and then together we will decide what to do with the rest.”
The Larssons do not strike me as greedy people. They drive small, inexpensive cars and live in modest apartments, and if they wanted to change their lifestyle they would probably have to do it somewhere other than Umea, where conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. I got the impression, in fact, that Stieg’s estate was a burden, a weighty responsibility they weren’t prepared for, perhaps didn’t feel quite up to and are still trying to figure out. Joakim gave me a long explanation, which I couldn’t quite follow, of why the Swedish tax laws make it hard to give money away, and yet slowly they have begun to do so, recently donating five million kronor, or $660,000, to Expo, the magazine Stieg co-founded.
The Larssons say they wish Gabrielsson well, and yet it bothers them greatly when she says Stieg had no contact with them. “I talked to my brother all the time at his office or on the cellphone,” Joakim said. Erland mentioned visiting Stieg in Stockholm and, because Stieg didn’t have a license, picking him up and driving him to the family’s summer cottage, where he worked on the third book. Stieg even sent him the books in manuscript, he said, and they discussed them. “The first book, I told him there was too much sex. The second one, I said, ‘You can’t end that way — it’s not fair to end with a cliffhanger.’ ”
He paused and then added, sadly: “I’m sorry that my wife, Stieg’s mother, didn’t live. I think it might have been different — it wouldn’t have been two males against one woman.”
Joakim remarked that there had been two recent face-to-face meetings with Gabrielsson and her lawyer. The first went badly; the second — perhaps because Erland was ill and couldn’t attend — was better.
So, I asked, was there still a chance of a happy resolution?
Joakim paused and then said, “Yes.”
“Ha!” Erland barked, and shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
MANY OF LARSSON’S friends have refrained from publicly taking sides in what they see as a tragic family quarrel. One who hasn’t refrained is Kurdo Baksi, whose memoir, “My Friend Stieg Larsson,” was recently published in Sweden and will come out here at the end of the year. He has openly sided with Joakim and Erland to the point where he now says that Gabrielsson has in effect stolen the fourth book and even that the relationship between her and Larsson wasn’t particularly fond. “Stieg liked women,” he said to me, insisting that on four occasions he saw Larsson being affectionate with women other than Eva. “I can’t lie for the history books,” he added. “I have the names, and Eva knows two of them very well.”
“Jesus Christ!” Gabrielsson said when I brought up Baksi’s name. “He’s making things up. He exaggerates his importance in everything he has ever done, or not done.”
As his name suggests, Baksi is not a Swede. He’s a Kurd from Turkish Kurdistan, and he came to Sweden as a teenager when his family had to flee for political reasons. As a young man he, too, founded a political magazine, Black and White, dedicated to opposing racism. He and Larsson met in 1992 when Baksi was organizing a one-day strike of immigrants in Sweden and Larsson, characteristically, called up and demanded to strike, too.
Baksi does not have the typical Swedish personality. He’s voluble, talkative, a bit of a self-aggrandizer. His book has offended a lot of people, because it violates the Swedish principle of jantelagen — of not sticking out or making too much of yourself. He has claimed, some of Larsson’s friends say, a much bigger part in Larsson’s life than he actually played. Baksi also says that Larsson was a better opinion journalist than a reporter.
Baksi prides himself on being a sort of ethical wheeler-dealer. “I don’t have money, but I can arrange money for good things,” he told me. And perhaps for that reason he said that the dispute between Gabrielsson and the Larssons is about money and nothing more and even called her the greedy party. Fredrik Quistbergh, a journalist who worked on a documentary about Gabrielsson, on the other hand, says that the real issue is not money but control — about who will get to shape Larsson’s literary legacy and decide about future adaptations. Eva Gedin sees the whole dispute partly in familial terms. It’s the kind of thing that happens in all families, she says: one side takes offense about something and stops talking to the other, and pretty soon the feud has a history and a life of its own.
But ultimately the dispute is really about Stieg Larsson himself, an exceptional young man, idealistic and artistic, who in classic fashion left the boondocks and made something of himself in the wider world. Who was he, really — a Norrlander or a Stockholmer? And who gets to claim him now? The emotional stakes on both sides are huge. No matter how close he was or wasn’t to his family, he was clearly a central figure to them — someone to be admired and cherished — as he was to Gabrielsson. The tragedy is that they can’t figure out a way to share him.
LIFE SELDOM IMITATES art, but sometimes they intersect. On Easter Saturday this year, the Stockholm City Museum sponsored a walking tour of landmarks that figure in the Millennium books. These tours have become a popular attraction, and there are hundreds every year, given in several languages. The group assembled at Bellmansgatan, a hilly street in Sodermalm, where in the novels Blomkvist has his apartment, and then paused on a path, still icy even in April, at the top of a bluff with a beautiful view of the Riddarfjarden, the bay separating Sodermalm from Gamla Stan, the Old City, and the rest of the Stockholm archipelago. Sodermalm, where much of the action in the books takes place, is Stockholm’s Brooklyn, more or less — formerly poor and working class but now rapidly being gentrified and home to the vinyl-record shops, the cool vintage-clothing boutiques, the edgy new restaurants. Larsson, who clearly loved the place, made a point in the books of using real addresses and real locations.
The guide explained that the books even employ a moral geography: the good characters all live in Soder, as it’s called, and the bad ones in Kungsholmen or Ostermalm, across the water. Wennerstrom, the corrupt billionaire in the first book, lives on Strandvagen, the guide said, a beautiful waterfront boulevard where the real Swedish billionaires live, and there Strandvagen was, gleaming in the distance.
Just then, two people came strolling down the path from the other direction: Eva Gabrielsson and Svante Branden, a friend of Larsson’s who is a character in the third book. They looked straight ahead, no one in the group recognized them and they were gone in an instant.
In an e-mail message later, Gabrielsson told me that she is used to such groups and that she thought it interesting that she and Branden happened by just as the guide was talking about corrupt businessmen in the novels. She added that she hoped he mentioned there were such people in the real world too.
Charles McGrath, a former editor of the Book Review, is a writer at large for The New York Times.