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

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"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."

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