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

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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."

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