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

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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 There are rumors about a fourth, unpublished Millennium book (Larsson's girlfriend says it exists but that it would be like "trying to finish a Picasso" and says she will never allow it to be published).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.

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