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?

AP Photo/Jan Collsioo/Scanpix Sweden
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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

Larsson dreamed of becoming a novelist — he told skeptical friends that his novels were his "retirement fund" — but even he couldn't have expected that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels would make him the bestselling author in the world. The books have now sold 48¬†million copies internationally, in 46 countries. In the U.S., the trilogy sold more than 13 million copies this year alone — roughly equal to the sales of recent books by John Grisham, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King combined. Larsson has outsold Paddington Bear, Anne Frank and Roget's Thesaurus.

In the process, Larsson himself has entered into the realm of mythology, the tales about him increasing in extravagance in direct correlation to his sales. There are stories about his alleged interrogation at the hands of military-intelligence agents and about his Elvis-like aversion to medical professionals (he consulted an African witch doctor, claims one friend). There are charges that he didn't write the books at all, that he was poisoned by Nazis, that he didn't actually die of a heart attack but faked his own death and is now in hiding. There are rumors about a fourth, unpublished Millennium book (Larsson's girlfriend says it exists but that it would be like "trying to finish a Picasso" and says she will never allow it to be published). And there are wild speculations about the purported existence of a real-life Lisbeth Salander, a model for the superhero of the novels. So far, at least five candidates have been named, one of them a man.

Larsson's estate has meanwhile become embroiled in a prolonged public saga that has pitted his girlfriend of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, against Larsson's family. Because Larsson never signed a will, and never married Gabrielsson, his posthumous fortune has been inherited by his brother and father. The Larssons offered Gabrielsson $2.6 million; she refused it. It's not exactly clear what she wants. "I think Eva wants to be a victim," says Joakim, Stieg's brother. "We feel sorry for that. It's sad, you know." Erland, Stieg's father, adds: "It's a way to get people to pity her and love her."

The debate over the money has captivated the Swedish press, with both sides coming off badly. The family has spent almost none of Larsson's money. Joakim draws a salary of about $3,500 a month, and the only outward indication Erland gives of wealth are the brown suede gloves he wears when driving his Kia, but they have been demonized for excluding Gabrielsson. "In Sweden, we are seen as greedy, brutal relatives," says Erland. "We have a very bad reputation." Gabrielsson, for her part, has stopped giving interviews. "I am done with refuting things about Stieg, about me and what happened after he died," she e-mails me. "Therefore, I have written a book about it, and I hope that will be the end of all lies and speculations." The book comes out in France, one of Larsson's biggest markets, in January.

Larsson's hometown of Umeå is an ugly university city on the Gulf of Bothnia, 400 miles north of Stockholm. In the Sixties and Seventies, city planners decided to replace Umeå's old buildings with the cheap concrete architecture popular at the time; the result is that the city, despite being situated near a picturesque stretch of Baltic coastline, bears a disconcerting resemblance to Danbury, Connecticut. Stieg Larsson spent much of his childhood here, and his brother and father receive guests in an office park in the middle of town, where they share a small suite blandly outfitted with functional, minimalistic furniture. It's unclear what work is done here besides interviews.

Like all modern mythologies, the world of Stieg Larsson has also become an industry. His family, his editors and his former co-workers now spend much of their time speaking with the scores of journalists who come to Sweden hoping to solve the various mysteries surrounding the author and his books. "I'm quite exhausted," says Larsson's editor, Eva Gedin, who has patiently given interviews to hundreds of journalists. "It can't go on like this. It's been interesting, but it has taken a lot of my time."

Anna-Lena Lodenius, who co-wrote a book on the extreme right with Larsson, says, "I often think that after I die, all I'll be remembered for is that I knew Stieg Larsson."

For Kurdo Baksi, a former publisher of Expo whom Larsson called his "kid brother," talking about his friend has become a full-time job. He's the first person to publish a memoir about Larsson (Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm), and he sits for an average of 20 interviews a week, sometimes traveling abroad for press conferences, film screenings and seminars. "I think he would do the same thing for me if he were alive," says Baksi. "I mean, if I had died, published three books, and was very, very famous."

Like those who preceded me, I meet with all of the people who were closest to Larsson. I listen dutifully to their stories, charting the fluctuations between well-rehearsed boilerplate and outrageous fabulation. But it is only when I meet Therese Larsson, Stieg's 26-year-old niece, that things begin to make sense. Her uncle's death was devastating to her, and outside of a couple of local Swedish newspapers, she has avoided speaking to the press. But she has been increasingly disturbed by the mythological being that Stieg has become. "What I read in the paper — that's not him," she says in her father's office. "That's not Stieg."

As she speaks, the thick curtains of Larsson Industries part, and a man emerges. His story, as it turns out, is far stranger, and sadder, than myth.

Larsson was not an only child, but for much of his childhood, he lived like one. His parents met as teenagers at an outdoor dance in the summer of 1953 in Skellefteå, a small city 500 miles north of Stockholm. Erland was on leave from the military. Vivianne was the daughter of a blue-collar worker. The following year, Karl Stig-Erland Larsson was born in Skelleftehamn, population 3,000. When Stieg was still an infant, Vivianne and Erland moved to Stockholm in the hope of finding jobs. They left their son behind with Vivianne's parents.

Larsson grew up in Bjursele, a village of only 60 people. Larsson writes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that "Bjursele was like a poster for the Västerbotten country village. It consisted of about 20 houses set relatively close together in a semicircle at one end of a lake... At the height of summer, it was as pretty as a postcard."

As a boy, Stieg lived in his grandparents' cottage in the woods. At the time, an old Swedish law was still in effect that barred children from attending school until they were seven. Written a century earlier, the law was intended to protect little boys and girls from being devoured by wolves while walking through the forest on the way to school. So Stieg grew up surrounded by forest, with no school, no television — only books. He loved detective stories, especially Astrid Lindgren's series about the boy detective Kalle Blomkvist, and Sivar Ahlrud's Tvillingdetektiverna, "twin detectives" who were a Swedish equivalent to the Hardy Boys. His grandfather Severin was also a source of constant fascination: He had opposed the Nazis during World War II and was a lifelong communist; Stieg would later publish political tracts in Trotskyite publications under the pen name "Severin."

Stieg soon began making up his own stories. When his parents and his younger brother, Joakim, visited at Christmas, the two children would play in the woods, and at night, Stieg would narrate elaborate tales about a boy detective named Joakim Larsson, with titles like "The Mystery of the Killer in the Next House." "I just loved to listen to him," says Joakim. "If the stories were true or false, it didn't matter."

When Stieg was eight, Severin died, and he moved with his grandmother to Umeå, where the rest of the family had settled. His parents both found work in a dress shop, and his mother won a seat on the city council; his father later worked as an illustrator for the local newspaper. In their tiny one-bedroom apartment, Stieg's grandmother took the sofa, while Stieg and Joakim had a bunk bed. Their parents slept in the hall, on the floor. Stieg, disturbed by this upheaval and Severin's death, retreated into his fantasies. One day, he handed his father his first short story. It was about two boy detectives, Jack and John, who solve mysteries in America — in a distant town that bore a remarkable resemblance to Umeå. "I could recognize every stone, every tree, the lake," Erland says now, still bewildered by his son's abilities. Soon after, his parents surprised Stieg with a gift: his first typewriter.

In his teens, Larsson founded two science-fiction fanzines, contributing stories, articles and illustrations. As a form of payment, readers could send in stories or write a letter to the editor. The barrier between science fiction and politics has always been permeable, but this was the Seventies, and the Swedish youth movement had reached a state of frenzied urgency. The magazine regularly received letters from young leftists. There was one exception: a science-fiction fan named Lars-Göran Hedengård, who passionately defended Nixon and supported the Vietnam War.

Larsson could not let these comments stand unchallenged. The magazine soon became dominated by his responses to Hedengård's letters. Hedengård, it became clear, was active in the pro-fascist movement. Larsson was aware of hate groups in Sweden, but he was appalled that their membership was being refreshed with people of his own generation. He determined to Expose everything he could learn about these people, many of whom operated in secrecy. He would become a detective.

Rejected by the Stockholm School of Journalism and unable to get a job as a reporter, Larsson opted for the time-honored tactic of aspiring journalists: If a newspaper wouldn't send him to cover a story, he'd find the story himself. He headed to Africa, looking for adventure — riding buses through Algeria, Morocco and Kenya. On a trip to Ethiopia, he met members of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, a Marxist separatist group, and later told friends he trained a company of female soldiers to use grenade launchers — a story he embellished over the years. His biggest scare — besides contracting malaria and developing a kidney problem — occurred in Addis Ababa. A female backpacker from New Zealand, whom Larsson had met on a bus, told military-intelligence officers at the British Embassy that Larsson knew what kind of weapons the Ethiopian rebels had. He was picked up but refused to answer any questions. Though he later described the walk back from the embassy through war-torn Addis Ababa as a harrowing, life-threatening affair, he returned to his hotel without further incident.

Throughout his African travels, he wrote articles from the front, but editors in Sweden weren't interested. He came back home penniless and malarial, and was forced to take a job loading packages at the Stockholm post office. A sympathetic friend finally took pity on him and wrangled Larsson a typist position at Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, the Swedish equivalent of the Associated Press. He took to calling himself a reporter, but friends knew he was bluffing. "If you consider all the years Stieg worked at TT," Kurdo Baksi writes in his memoir, "he wrote comparatively few articles of any length." Over the next 20 years, Larsson is credited with writing only 25 pieces, many of them reviews of crime novels. Five were interviews with the editorial board he later set up at Expo — interviews, in essence, with himself.

Larsson felt like he had something to prove and was irritated that his one-man crusade against bigotry was being largely ignored — but he was unrelenting. "Stieg simply couldn't help himself," says Baksi. "The moment he sat down at a computer, he took sides."

As Larsson struggled to establish himself as a journalist, his obsession with the extreme right grew increasingly rabid. He collected every journal, pamphlet and piece of correspondence from extremists he could find. The idea for an archive came to him after reading Frederick Forysth's thriller The Odessa File — an investigative journalist uncovers an archive of information about a secret international Nazi organization, which he attempts to infiltrate as an undercover agent. Larsson became a correspondent for the British anti-racism journal Searchlight. Then, in 1991, he had his first real break: Extremhögern ("The Extreme Right"), an exhaustive history he co-wrote tracing the rise of far-right groups, surpassed all sales expectations. Over 10 years, it sold some 6,000 copies.

But Larsson was still frustrated. He was pushing 40, and his journalism career was faltering. He had moved on from his typist duties at TT — he now designed the graphics that ran alongside articles — but editors still weren't giving him the writing assignments he craved. It wasn't because of any lack of intensity, however. When he would go out for drinks after work, he had little patience for small talk, trying to steer the conversation to issues of substance. If someone discussed a subject he didn't know about — flowers commonly found in Uppsala, say, or Amazon warriors — he would go home that night and research it online, then show up the next morning at his colleague's desk, reciting facts that demonstrated his knowledge. Did they know that the Latin name for the white, heatherlike flower was Leptospermum rubinette? Or that the Greeks coined the term "Amazon"?

"He was an autodidact and had an extreme sense of knowledge about all kinds of different subjects," says Robert Aschberg, a television host and columnist who serves as Expo's publisher. "Information was like a drug for him: He had to know everything."

Yet Larsson couldn't bring himself to leave TT. He took pride in working for the news agency — and he needed the salary. He rarely used banks, keeping all of his money in his wallet and paying bills with cash at the post office. His father urged him to start thinking of himself: "Write something commercial," Erland would tell him in his loud, stentorian voice. Remembering his son's passion for Astrid Lindgren, he suggested that Stieg try his hand at children's literature.

In a way, Larsson already had. For some time, he had worked on his own version of Sivar Ahlrud's Tvillingdetektiverna books, in which the boy detectives were now adults and had to solve serious crimes. But it didn't work, and he threw it away. The only way forward, he concluded, was to start his own publication, as he had done in Umeå with his fanzines. There was no question about what its subject would be. By the early Nineties, neo-Nazi groups were holding protests in the street, in full regalia, and Stockholm's immigrant population was being terrorized by a serial killer known as the Laser Man. The subject of Larsson's arcane obsession — a splintered right-wing extremist movement in a country that had been ruled for most of the century by a leftist government — had suddenly become the major story of his time.

The debut issue of Expo appeared in August 1995, with the stated goal of studying and surveying "anti-democratic, right-wing extremist and racist tendencies in Swedish society." The first issues didn't attract much attention. But the magazine was noticed by the only constituency that mattered: Nazis. The printer's office was vandalized, and newsstands carrying the magazine had their windows smashed and their walls spray-painted with the message: Don't Print Expo!

It was the best thing that could have happened to a fledgling investigative magazine. The violence attracted major attention in the press — it became known as "the Expo affair" — and Sweden's two largest evening newspapers jointly published a special edition of Expo. The magazine never had more than 1,000 subscribers in Larsson's lifetime and always lost money, but its voice was heard.

Even before the launch of Expo, Larsson worried about the threats against him. He had installed a vaultlike fireproof door in his home and changed his routine daily — going to and from work at odd hours and taking different routes home. His friends didn't know what to make of his increasing vigilance. Were the threats against him legitimate? Or was it part of his self-dramatizing act as an investigative journalist?

Then something happened that justified Larsson's most paranoid theories. One afternoon the phone rang at his desk at TT. The caller's voice was oddly cheerful.

"Someone will kill you today," he said. Then the line went dead.

Larsson went to the window. On a bench across the street sat a man with a large bag. He was watching the building's entrance, as if he was waiting for someone.

Larsson knew the police wouldn't believe his story and that they would have no grounds to pick up a man sitting peacefully on a bench. Larsson could leave by the back door, but the man might return the next day, and the one after that.

He called the police.

"There will be a bank robbery this afternoon," Larsson told them. "The robber is currently sitting on a bench in front of Kungsholmstorg 5."

"Who is this? Where are you calling from?" Larsson hung up.

Minutes later, a police car pulled up in front of the office. The man was apprehended, his bag was checked. It contained several guns. Larsson took the back door out and ran home.

'Expo" was bad for his health. The office was a haze of smoke, the tables littered with cigarette stubs floating in half-full coffee mugs and mayonnaise-smeared sandwich wrappers from fast-food joints. (Larsson's dinner of choice was a McFeast & Co., the Swedish equivalent of a Quarter Pounder value meal — only instead of a Coke he ordered whole milk.) He was in the office every night after leaving TT, and all weekend. He drank obscene quantities of cheap coffee and suffered from insomnia. He begged friends for funding, conducted research and trained his young staff, some of whom he had recruited as teenagers. The kids adored him; he handed out his e-mail address freely, and responded to anyone who wrote to him, often at startling length. "He was the great old man who knew everything," says Mikael Ekman, who went to work at Expo when he was 19.

The staff loved listening to Larsson's stories. A few times, he talked about a girl who had been gang-raped by teenagers in the woods outside of Umeå when he was a kid. He sometimes claimed that the teenagers were his friends, that he was there, standing by while the crime unfolded, and that his sense of guilt had inspired him to devote his life to defending women against violence. Kurdo Baksi argues that this girl was the main inspiration for Lisbeth Salander; the original Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Män som hatar kvinnor — "Men Who Hate Women." But Larsson later told a colleague at Expo that he had heard the story secondhand. For all his friends knew, he'd made the whole thing up.

These embellishments hardly mattered to his admiring staffers. Ekman was drawn to Expo after reading Larsson's book on the extreme right when he was just 15. When he noticed that his high school dance had been overrun by skinheads, he called the Expo offices to speak with Larsson, who responded immediately. Before long, Larsson was encouraging the teenager to go undercover as a mole in his local Nazi youth organization. Ekman joined the National Socialist Front, attending meetings and reporting his findings. Daniel Poohl, who became editor of Expo after Larsson's death, also began as a teen mole, infiltrating a Nazi youth journal. He debriefed Larsson, who taught him strategies to maintain his cover. Larsson hadn't just created a magazine. He had created an agency for boy detectives.

The biggest pressure Larsson felt — more than the fear of being assaulted by right-wing zealots or the challenge of publishing a magazine with a staff dominated by writers and editors in their 20s — was money. Although he was perpetually broke, he gave little thought to his own personal finances. He neglected for so long to cash the $6,000 advance he received for a book about a racist Swedish political party that he co-wrote with Ekman, the publisher begged Ekman to walk Larsson to the bank.

Larsson was tired of worrying about Expo's future, tired of relying on Gabrielsson, an architect, to organize their finances, tired of carrying his life's savings in the pocket of his jeans. "I'm fed up with having to go around with my hat out, begging for money for Expo," he complained to a friend. "Nobody cares, nobody gives us any money. I need a one-time solution."

His father was right: He needed to write something commercial.

In 2002, Larsson and Gabrielsson took a vacation to the Stockholm archipelago. He put aside his work for Expo and decided to try again at a novel. There was a growing international market for Scandinavian crime fiction, and no one knew more about the genre than he did. In place of the traditional detective, he would have an investigative journalist. This character would be the grown-up version of a popular children's detective — only instead of taking Tvillingdetektiverna as his model, he would use Astrid Lindgren's know-it-all boy detective, Kalle Blomkvist. He would be an idealized version of Larsson — a national celebrity who tells his paramours things like "I'm not going to apologize for the way I've led my life." ("Going to bed with him," Larsson writes, "was not threatening or complicated, but might be erotically enjoyable.")

Blomkvist would be a hard-charging reporter at Millennium, a fantasy version of Expo: "The magazine began as a real outsider . . . its circulation has grown and today is 21,000 copies monthly." But Blomkvist would be secondary. The novel's main figure would be the adult incarnation of a different Lindgren character: Pippi Longstocking.

In Lindgren's stories, Pippi is a jester and prankster — a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength who lives on her own. Larsson, well aware that Lindgren was the bestselling author in the history of Swedish literature, later made a point of emphasizing the Pippi Longstocking connection. "What would she be like as an adult?" he wondered in the only interview he gave about his novels before his death. "What would she be called? A sociopath? Somebody suffering from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder? I made her like Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old, with a ginormous exclusion complex. She knows nobody and has no social skills whatsoever."

Instead of being endowed with physical strength, Salander is a hacker magician. With a few keystrokes on her laptop, she can access every piece of information in the world. But the parallels between Lisbeth Salander and Pippi Longstocking are gestural at best. When he tried to explain the main character of his novels to his brother, Larsson reached for a closer analogy.

"She's like Therese," he said.

When Therese Larsson was growing up, she saw her uncle as a heroic figure. Whenever he visited from Stockholm he would tell her stories about the terrifying adventures he had while hitchhiking through Africa, about the time that a gang of Nazis had jumped him outside of a Stockholm restaurant or the time an assassin had waited for him outside his office. When the stories became too scary, her mother sent her to bed. But she would tiptoe to the door of the living room and sit there, listening to the sound of his voice.

Larsson didn't visit Umeå often — he always had an excuse about a deadline that needed to be met. But he corresponded regularly with his niece by e-mail, Therese sending short notes and receiving what seemed to her like novel-length responses. He was an adult she could confide in, a role model and teacher who wasn't a parent, with whom she could discuss life as a teenager in Umeå. She appreciated that he was honest with her. He disapproved, for instance, when she told him that she had moved in with her high school boyfriend.

"You're too young," he told her. "A girl your age should be using boys like toys."

She laughed.

"It's OK," he said. "You know how to take care of yourself."

He didn't fault her for taking a job as a nurse's aide instead of applying to college. And he made no comment when she showed him the large rose that she had tattooed on her shoulder. That she chose a rose, however, was surprising. When she was young, she had often said that she would get a tattoo of a dragon.

In the two years Larsson spent writing his novels, he often e-mailed Therese to ask her questions about her life: what she thought about, what she would do in certain situations. She told him about her struggles with anorexia and about her passion for kickboxing; she had been taking lessons since she was 15. (Before that, she had studied jujitsu for eight years.) He had always loved how she dressed as a teenager — black makeup, black leather jacket, black boots.

"Lisbeth Salander is like you," Larsson told her. "Soft on the outside, but harder inside."

When Therese turned 20, she decided to go with her boyfriend to Stockholm. She wanted to introduce him to her uncle. They made plans, but at the last minute Larsson had to cancel — he was on deadline. He asked her to wait a little longer, but they had to catch the plane back to Umeå. He apologized profusely, and they agreed to make plans to see each other again soon. He died two months later.

Therese, now 26, lives with a new boyfriend. She still wears black, but her tastes run more to Björn Borg's casual-clothing line than to the gothic punk favored by Lisbeth Salander, and she has let her short brown hair grow out. She has a broad smile and a low, joyful laugh, which makes an appearance whenever she talks about her kickboxing class. She's quite accomplished: She knows how to smash a block of wood with her fist and, she says, how to smash the boys in her class.

Her father encourages her to apply to college, and her friends encourage her to be certified as a registered nurse. But after so many people close to her died — her mother, who died of pancreatic cancer three years ago, her uncle, and her ex-boyfriend, who committed suicide — she is happy to be in a comfortable, safe place, still working as a nurse's aide at the local hospital. "I like to take care of people and have people around me," she says.

I ask if she's ever tempted to request some of her uncle's money — millions of krona that could be made readily available to her, just as it is to Salander in the novels.

"I don't think about it," she says. "I have enough money to buy food. I don't need any more."

Her uncle's celebrity has put her in odd situations, especially since strangers don't suspect she's related — Larsson is a common Swedish surname. One day, while Therese was making her rounds at the hospital, an interview with her father and grandfather came on the television. The host talked about how many millions of krona the Larsson family had inherited from the Millennium trilogy.

"Hey, Therese," said one of the patients. "What's your last name?"

"Larsson," she said.

"Ha! You could be related to him!"

"Yeah," she said. "I am."

The patients chuckled and turned back to the television. Therese took a deep breath and went back to changing their bedpans.

In the six years since his death, Stieg Larsson has become what he always aspired to be: a bestselling writer who blends the passions of political journalism with the fantastical tales of his youth. "Everyone knows about Stieg Larsson now," says his editor, Eva Gedin. "He's a phenomenon, like Abba or Ikea."

She's right — but not all of his friends have capitalized on Larsson's sudden fame. Per Jarl was one of Larsson's closest friends and the journalist who got him hired at TT. He has never spoken with a reporter about his friend.

Jarl couldn't read the books for several years, worried it would be like hearing a ghost; finally he listened to them on CD. He was struck by the deeper themes that were embedded in the classic conventions of the crime thriller. In particular, the obsessive crusade that had always driven his friend: Larsson's hatred of violent neo-Nazis — and of all men who subjugate women and find ways to abuse them at every turn. "The important thing," Jarl tells me several times, "is to understand that there is a very serious thing that Stieg was fighting for."

It's a windy, gray day, and we are walking in Kungsholmen, not far from Expo's offices.

Jarl is still stunned by Larsson's success. "One of your closest friends tells you he's written some crime novels — what are you supposed to think?" he says. "Then he dies, and becomes a celebrity. I'm a journalist, I understand how it works — the hype, the people making money off him. But it's bizarre."

Then, right before we part, he comes to an abrupt halt in the street and grabs my shoulder.

"Everybody's talking about the fourth book," he says. "Does it exist, what is it about? For me, it's very clear what the fourth book is. The fourth book started the day he died: It's everything that's happened afterward, all this fucking mess, all the rumors." Jarl shakes his head.

"We don't need a fourth book," he says. "The fourth book is happening right now."

From The Archives Issue 1120: December 23, 2010
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