The Mystery of the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson, the World's Bestselling — and Most Enigmatic — Author

Six years after his death, the facts of his life have morphed into myth: Was he murdered? Was he a spy? Was there really a girl with a dragon tattoo?

January 5, 2011 2:25 PM ET
The Mystery of the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson, the World's Bestselling — and Most Enigmatic — Author
AP Photo/Jan Collsioo/Scanpix Sweden

The offices of "Expo" magazine are on the top floor of a seven-story office building in the drab, middle-class neighborhood of Fridhemsplan. It is a gray building on a gray side street in a gray part of Stockholm. That's why Stieg Larsson chose it. In the decade since he co-founded the anti-racist magazine, he and his staff had been stalked, their printer's office had been vandalized, and police had uncovered photographs of Larsson and his girlfriend in the possession of a violent neo-Nazi group. He needed a location that could not be easily found. The name Expo does not appear anywhere in the lobby. Next to the buzzer for the seventh floor there is a single name: "Larsson."

The Secret Obsessions of 'Dragon Tattoo' Author Stieg Larsson

On the afternoon of November 9th, 2004, Larsson and a friend entered the lobby. As usual, he was in a rush. He had to finish the next issue of Expo and had a deadline looming for a short book about the rise of neo-Nazis in Sweden. And he had recently received news that would change his life: A trilogy of epic crime novels that he had written in a frantic, two-year burst had just sold to a publisher, and yesterday, he had met with a producer about the possibility of a film deal. The books, which Larsson called the Millennium series, were a hybrid of sexual fantasy and political-crime thriller, featuring an investigative journalist and an affectless, horny, cyberpunk hacker named Lisbeth Salander. Salander, who has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder and dozens of piercings, is lovingly described in the books as "a girl who looks as if she's barely entered puberty and who's less than five feet tall." She has near-magical powers: She survives sadistic sexual violence, a point-blank gunshot to the head and lethal prose. "In a time of great danger," Larsson had written, she remains "cool, calm and collected."

This article appeared in the December 23, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now in the online archive.

Larsson himself was anything but calm. Today he was even paler than normal, and insomnia had carved dark lines under his eyes. He never exercised, subsisting on a diet of frozen pizzas, fast-food value meals and cigarettes — he smoked as many as 60 a day.

"You don't look well," his friend remarked.

Larsson jabbed the button for the elevator, but it wouldn't come. "I don't have time for this," he said. He headed for the stairs.

Peter Travers Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

By the seventh floor he was sweating heavily and gasping. As he slumped into a chair by the large conference table in Expo's office, the magazine's photo editor rushed over to see whether he was OK. Larsson put his hand on his heart. He couldn't speak.

"Stieg, I'm here," said the photo editor. "We're taking care of this. Hang on."

Larsson appeared to hear him. But then he collapsed, his head falling on the table.

By the time the paramedics arrived, the elevator was working. They put an oxygen mask over Larsson's mouth and carried him into an ambulance.

"How old is he?" asked one of the paramedics.

"I'm 50, damn it," Larsson said through the mask.

He wasn't saying that he was too young to die, or too young to have a heart attack. What he meant was: I don't have time for this.

Photos: Random Notes

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