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Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Didn't Live to See the Sensational Success of His Books

Updated on September 7, 2011

Stieg Larsson and his novels

Actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander
Actress Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Author dies before seeing the fruit of his labor

Swedish journalist and author Stieg Larsson’s novels took the world by storm beginning in 2005 with the publishing of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008 in the UK and the US), followed by The Girl who played with Fire in 2006, and then The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in 2007. These three books, which focus on the magnetic team comprised of investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, and fiery punk computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, have already sold about 35 million copies in several dozen countries.

Unfortunately, Larsson did not live to enjoy the success of his novels. He died in 2004 at age 50 and the books were published posthumously. Much intrigue has arisen regarding his life, and indeed many are suspicious that sinister circumstances may have surrounded his death.

Larsson long suspected he would die young. He was no stranger to death threats due to his political activities and convictions. In fact, his life partner Eva Gabrielsson claims the reason they were never married was because they feared having their personal information made available in public records.

As a result, she had no legal claim to his assets after he died, and his estate was awarded to his brother and father since no legal will was found. Gabrielsson apparently produced a will Larsson had written back in 1977, but there were no witnesses to it, so it was not binding under Swedish law. This will, had it been legal, would have left all of Larsson’s assets to the Socialist Party in Sweden.

Ironically, the Swedish publisher of the books, offered to draw up a will to delineate who the recipient of the books’ profits would go to in the event of Larsson’s death. Unfortunately, Larsson died before the will had been drafted.

Larsson, who was raised by his grandparents in his early years and greatly affected by his grandfather’s stories and experiences during World War II, formed his political convictions out of this background. His grandfather was imprisoned for being vocally opposed to fascism while many in Sweden supported Hitler’s regime. In response, Larsson dedicated his life to promoting democracy and freedom of speech. In addition, when he was 14, he witnessed a woman being gang-raped. This was a major determinant in his lifelong outspoken support of woman’s rights.

After his grandfather died when he was seven, Larsson returned to living with his parents who by now had provided him with a brother. Larsson was given a typewriter by his parents at age 12, and from then on there was no stopping the blooming author.

In 1962, Larsson met the love of his life Eva Gabrielsson at a rally against the Vietnam War when they were both 18 years old. They lived together for 32 years until his death in 2004. Together they published science fiction fanzines.

Larsson also worked as a graphic designer for a Swedish news agency for about 20 years. In 1995, he helped start Expo, a Swedish anti-racist, anti-fascist magazine for which he remained the editor until his death.

Larsson evidently began working on the first of the Millenium novels (named after the fictional magazine in his trilogy) while he was on vacation in 2002. Thereafter, he typically kept a 14-hour work day: putting in the usual work day at his Expo magazine and then burning the midnight oil for almost as many hours working on the novels before retiring.

Larsson was apparently in no rush to have them published. He did not submit them to a publisher until all three of the novels were finished. This was unfortunate. If he had submitted the first and second one when they were finished, he might have been able to enjoy some of the fruits of his labor.

Before his death, Larsson had started a fourth book in the series. Gabrielsson currently has possession of the manuscript and has been in a dispute with the author’s father and brother about allowing her to have authority over it since she is privy to the author’s intentions regarding it. Larsson’s relatives have refused to acquiesce on this issue for five years. They tried to buy off Gabrielsson with a token gesture of the Swedish equivalent of 2.6 million dollars, but she maintains she is not after money, but wants the book to be handled the way her man would have wanted. Apparently, Larsson considered the books to be an extension of his life-long devotion to fighting right-wing extremism.

She laments that already the books have been handled improperly. After the books had been translated into English, the English editor/publisher who bought the rights to publish the books in England, took some liberties in altering the translations. He was also the one who gave the books their jazzy titles. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Men Who Hate Women in Swedish. The Girl Who Played With Fire remained the same, but The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was originally The Air Castle That Blew Up. The English titles have undoubtedly added to the books’ appeal, but Gabrielsson insists Larsson would have never allowed the title changes. The Swedish publisher had tried to change the title of the first book, but Larsson held his ground.

As mentioned above, some fans and friends of Larrson suspect foul play is involved in his death. But the facts actually seem fairly cut and dry. Larrson’s office at Expo was on the 7th Floor. The elevator was not working on November 9, 2005. Larrson was forced to climb all seven flights of stairs. When he got to the office, he collapsed and a coworker quoted his last words as “I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!” Some may find the fact that he died from a heart attack after climbing stairs a bit difficult to believe, but Larrson was notorious for not taking care of himself. He worked long hours, slept little, exercised little, ate junk food, and drank lots of coffee. There can be no denying that the ingredients of his lifestyle formed a perfect recipe for a heart attack and early death.

The Hollywood movie of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is due to come out in December 2011. A little known actress named Rooney Mara will play the quirky main female character Lisbeth Salander. The role of the main male character, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is going to be played by Daniel Craig of recent James Bond fame. Circulating gossip has Swedish actors playing minor roles.

The trilogy has already been made into three hugely successful movies in Sweden which have also been widely viewed throughout Europe. The Swedish actress who played Lisbeth was rumored to have been considered for the Hollywood version.

A number of reviewers have tried to explain the astonishing success of Larrson’s novels. Some have conjectured it is because of the intriguing character found in Lisbeth Salander. Others have contended it is the inside look at Sweden they provide: instead of a sublime socialist wonderland filled with mellow Volvo driving, ABBA listening citizens, it reveals the seedy side of Sweden’s politics. Still others have suggested it is the drama behind the books involving the death of the author and the battle over his estate that have ignited so much intense interest. Still there are some who find the underlying message about society’s treatment of women to be the drawing factor.

Some have even questioned whether Larsson could really be the author of the books. People who have worked with him have suggested that his writing skills were not that good. Gabrielsson has hinted that she had collaborated with him on the books to some extent. Mikael Ekman, who coauthored a nonfiction book with Larsson, laughed it off when Larrson once portended he would write novels and become a millionaire. Another friend and coworker, Kurdo Baksi, refused even to look at the manuscript when Larsson offered to show it to him, believing literature was not Larsson’s forte. Other former colleague’s have proffered that someone else had to be behind the books. However, Eva Gedin, Larsson’s Swedish editor for the books, has no doubt he wrote the books. She maintains that editor’s have intuition about those kinds of things.

A book about his life was published in May 2010 entitled The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larrson by Barry Forshaw. I have not read this book but reviews of it on Amazon say that the book actually shares very little about his life, talks a lot about the three novels and actually gives the plot of the books away, so is recommended reading after the novels have been read.

Another book written about Larsson is My Friend Stieg Larsson by Kurdo Baksi which was just published last month (September 2010) in English. Baksi is in some ways very critical of Larsson, particularly of his writing abilities. Gabrielsson has been outspokenly critical of the book saying Baksi did not know the real Larsson since their relationship had been strictly a professional one. A former boss of Larsson, Kenneth Ahlborn, agrees with Gabrielsson. He has called on the publisher to withdraw the book unless the denunciations can be proven.


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