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

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'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.

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