One night at the beginning of the new millennium, Stieg Larsson was at home drinking whisky with his colleague Mikael Ekman, a young journalist who had joined Expo straight from school.
“You didn’t often get drunk with Stieg,” said Ekman, “but the other guests had either left or dropped out of the conversation and the whisky was on the table, and for some reason we started talking about pensions. Stieg wasn’t exactly known as a financial genius, so I wondered whether he had made any provisions for the future. But Stieg wasn’t a bit interested in saving for a pension and all that crap – ‘I’m going to write a few thrillers instead and become a multimillionaire.’ It was like so much else with him: he just went ahead and did it; simple as that.”
But for all the success of the novels, for Ekman, Larsson’s real achievement lay elsewhere. “Stieg was a political animal. He was a fervent advocate of women’s rights. He was an anti-fascist. Despite the runaway success of his thrillers, I have always considered his articles about Swedish and international rightwing extremism more interesting − and more important.”
In the one and only interview he gave about his crime novels, for the book trade journal Svensk Bokhandel, Larsson said, “Writing thrillers is easy. It’s much harder to write a 500-word article where everything has to be 100 per cent correct.”
From 1968, when he was only 14, Stig Larsson [he would later change the spelling of his first name] was politically committed. He wore a purple badge with a gold star, the symbol of the Vietnam National Liberation Front movement. He was already very independent and spent much of his time in his room in the basement of his parents’ apartment house in Umeå, reading, writing or having discussions with his political friends.
Politics was an integral part of family life. His maternal grandfather, Severin Boström, had been a loyal communist. His father Erland and his mother Vivianne were both Social Democrats. It was only natural for Stig and his parents to discuss what was happening in Sweden and the world, and furious arguments would often break out round the kitchen table. For Stig, the socialists – in other words his parents – were reactionaries and betrayers of socialism’s ideals.
By the time he was 16, in 1970, Stig had moved out of the family apartment into a room his parents had rented for him diagonally opposite them on Ersmarksgatan. He used to go home for meals, but otherwise he mostly looked after himself. He was a thin boy with round spectacles, black leather jacket and shoulder bag. Politically aware, he was eager for discussion, but always relaxed and sociable. His typewriter was his constant companion. He got to know Eva Gabrielsson, his future partner, through the NLF movement; she was also from the Skellefteå area, where Stieg had been born, and they became an item almost immediately.
One night, not long before his elder son’s 18th birthday, Erland Larsson came home to find Vivianne in tears. “You’ve got to talk to Stig,” she said. Stig wanted his parents to sign a form requesting his withdrawal from the Swedish Church. Erland thought it was no great problem, since his son would be 18 in a few months and could request his own withdrawal, anyway. (In Sweden one is automatically a member of the established church unless application is made to leave it.) “Yet they had quarrelled over it for three hours, which shows just how fraught such issues were in those days,” Erland said.
Later Stieg tried hard to persuade his younger brother Joakim to leave the church, which he finally did in his thirties. “Then after Stieg’s death we wondered whether it was acceptable to have a church funeral if he wasn’t a member of the established church,” Joakim said. “But it turned out that he still was. He had never bothered to apply to leave it. I felt as if he was laughing at me from his heaven.”
By the age of 18, Stig was already active in the Umeå Red Group, the first step towards affiliation to the national Trotskyist organisation in Sweden. There is still a nucleus of activists from the 1970s, all of whom remember Stig Larsson as a young Trotskyist alongside themselves. They suggest three reasons for his adoption of Trotskyism. First, since he didn’t have much time for state socialism, he saw Trotskyism as the obvious alternative, a form of liberated socialism. Second, there was its emphasis on internationalism. Third, Trotskyists were more open to culture than were most leftwing groups.
Stig didn’t approve of political correctness, classic social realism or the concept of a “popular culture” as defined by the Maoist left. He was far more interested in the subversive element in popular culture, how books and films dealt with social trends. He enjoyed films that were anathema to the left. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, for instance, with its expressionistic scenes of brutality, and even Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”. His affection for these films is easy to understand. Both Leone and Peckinpah depict human beings in a cynical society where the hero has to strike out on his own if he is to maintain his moral position.
It was around this time, probably 1973, during his high-school years, that Stig became Stieg. There was another Stig Larsson in Umeå of about the same age, also a leftwing activist, but a member of the even more revolutionary Marxist-Leninist Association (KFML). It was inevitable that their paths would cross. Their mail was frequently delivered to the wrong address, and their mothers came to know each other as a result. There is an oft-repeated tale that the two boys got together and tossed a coin to decide which of them should change name. That may well be one of Stieg’s anecdotes, since Stig Larsson has no recollection of any such meeting but thinks Stieg changed it of his own volition.
The other Stig Larsson soon gave up politics and turned to art and theatre. He trained as a director and later co-founded the influential literary journal Kris (Crisis), which introduced theoreticians of postmodernism such as Derrida, de Man and Blanchot. His debut novel Autisterna (The Autistics) brought him immediate success and for some years he was one of the most acclaimed writers in the country. When, in 1989, Le Nouvel Observateur included Stig Larsson in a list of the 100 people in the world they thought would be significant for European culture in the 1990s, Stieg Larsson was an unknown press agency employee and anti-racist activist.
In 1975-76 Stieg did his military service in Umeå. He had no misgivings about being called up. He was not a pacifist and regarded force in some circumstances as justified or necessary. To defend oneself against an oppressor was the right thing to do.
In the 1970s, the Trotskyists tried to foment disaffection in Stieg’s regiment in Umeå. Their campaign caused serious concern in both the military and the security police, who saw it as undermining national security. Larsson was among those who covertly sold the Trotskyist national service newspaper Röd Soldat (Red Soldier) in barracks − without being caught.
Umeå was a university city. Umeå was even known as “the red university”. What would have been more natural than for Stieg to apply there? But he never did. “Taking the academic path”, until then regarded as the desirable thing to do, no longer had such prestige, especially for a young Trotskyist for whom a factory worker had a higher status than an academic. The only further study that had any appeal for him was journalism, and he applied to the College of Journalism; but he failed the entrance examination and was not accepted.
He started work at Hörnefors pulp mill and then took a job with the Swedish post office. He moved out of his room and was earning good money. But his ultimate aim was still to make his way out into the world. In 1979 he took a job in Stockholm with the organisation that was at the very heart of the Swedish news media: TT, Tidningarnas Telegram-byrå, the Swedish news agency. He began by writing up sports results until, substituting for a colleague, he had a chance to display his talent for illustrating articles with diagrams, boxes and other devices, and this led to the offer of a permanent position.
He had created his own corner − news graphics − where he was something of a pioneer at TT. He dealt mainly with urgent jobs for news cables. If a plane had crashed on Guadeloupe, he would draw a map of the area with the crash site marked in. He worked on his own, producing maps, graphics and diagrams in the form of boxes and circles with his special tools − fine ink tubes, transfer letters, caption machine, scalpel. His illustrations, which were sold individually to newspapers, became a profitable sales line for TT.
At this period, the early 1980s, he had begun writing for the Socialist party’s weekly magazine Internationalen. He submitted articles on national service for women, on the New Age movement and superstition; he drew a map of US and Soviet military bases and nuclear weapons facilities throughout the world. At first he used his grandfather’s forename, Severin, as his pseudonym.
TT gave him broader scope for his writing. In 1983-84 the company created a department called TT Bild (TT Pictorial). It produced longer feature articles, TT-Reportage, that could be sold to newspapers, even in the form of a finished text. The reporter Kenneth Ahlborn was made head of department. He soon discovered that Stieg Larsson was brimming over with ideas and encouraged him to write.
A colleague who worked with him during his early years at TT claimed in a much-cited article in Dagens Nyheter in January 2010 that Stieg was a poor writer who could scarcely compose the shortest of articles. “His style was affected, the word order often unidiomatic, sentence structure too uniform and syntax sometimes completely weird − it was a language that had to be rewritten to fulfil its professional function.”
But Ahlborn emphasises that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Larsson’s writing; his articles needed a certain amount of editing, but no more than those of most other journalists.
As well as feature articles for TT, Stieg also produced an extensive portfolio of travel writing for the Swedish magazine Vagabond. The journal was new on the market then and one of the early feature ideas was to send a writer on the classic train journey from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Stieg’s friend Per Jarl immediately expressed an interest in going as a photographer and suggested Stieg as writer. Per Andersson, the editor of Vagabond, was sceptical, but his doubts proved ill-founded when the text arrived, “typed without a single error on 14 A4 pages!”
It is a piece of reportage which still holds its own, written with pace and subtlety and with just the right amount of detail and factual information. Nevertheless, Ahlborn knew that Stieg’s commitment was directed elsewhere. When he sometimes arrived at work at TT in the middle of the day, there was good reason for it: “I knew of course that it wasn’t secret drinking, lack of respect for TT or anything like that behind his late appearances, but that he was engaged on a sort of civil defence mission against neo-Nazis and other sinister elements every evening and every night.”
In the early 1980s Stieg Larsson made contact with the British activists Gerry Gable and Graeme Atkinson, who ran the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. First launched in the early 1960s, then revived in 1975, Searchlight had become something of an institution for keeping far-right extremism under close scrutiny, and a number of similar magazines were launched in other European countries. In 1983, Stieg Larsson began writing for them as its Scandinavian correspondent. At Searchlight he came face to face with a hard-line anti-racism that was somewhat shocking for cautious Swedes used to their moderate popular movements.
But Larsson had long been interested in rightwing extremists. Back when he was living in Umeå, Stieg had discovered that there was a group in the town that was affiliated to the Nordic National party. He was so fascinated by the notion that such a crazy thing as real Nazism still existed in Sweden that he had begun reading up on the subject. When he wanted to write a school essay on neo-Nazism his teacher suggested he write about atomic power instead, but Stieg followed up his own interest and went to see what there was in the library, finding almost nothing. Much later, in an interview with the journal Humanisten, he said, “For many years I thought I was the only person in Sweden making a systematic study of this subject. But in 1979 a book appeared, Fascism Today: Advance Guard or Stragglers?, by the journalist Hans Lindquist. So I realised there must be at least two of us out there who were intrigued by this weird political fringe.”
Contributing to Searchlight was like taking a university course in the theory and practice of the ultra right. Stieg obtained a comprehensive overview of how the connections functioned between the various groupings and how their ideas had spread over time and between countries. Searchlight was a focal point for international co-operation and exchange of information among anti-fascists in Europe and even north America. Atkinson co-ordinated a network of people and organisations who were intent on fighting fascism and Stieg Larsson became an active member.
Ever since its inception Searchlight had been investigating and exposing the sometimes overt, sometimes veiled anti-semitism of the far right. It wrote about David Irving, who presented himself as a serious historian and even managed to get his books published by respectable publishers in Europe. It described the ways in which ultra-right organisations, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, had sought allies among leftwing nationalists or radical minority groups, not least those connected with Islam. In the 1970s and 1980s they cultivated links with the American Nation of Islam, whose leader, the black preacher Louis Farrakhan, employed his skilful demagoguery to interweave anti-semitic accusations into his speeches about black self-awareness.
For British anti-fascists, the clashes with Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were still within living memory, but Mosley had become a tragic and impotent figure. By 1970 a fresh start was needed, a new organisation. It was given the name the National Front and launched as a party which, unlike the Nazis, advocated an apparently moderate and serious-minded critique of immigration. In that way it could exploit the xenophobic mood in the hard-pressed industrial centres and have some influence on the right wing of the Tory party, where such opinions already had a powerful advocate in the figure of Enoch Powell.
When in the early 1980s Stieg Larsson wrote an account of Keep Sweden Swedish, the grouping seeking to form a Swedish National Front, not much was known in Sweden about the implications, but for Stieg and others who had been following British developments it was clear enough.
By the end of the 1970s, Britain was in crisis, with factory closures and systematic welfare cuts for the worst off. The alienated young shaved their heads, got themselves tattooed and put on uniform jackets and military boots as if going to war. Punk had arrived: harsh, noisy, vulgar, a kick in the teeth for respectability. It generally leaned to the left, but not always. Ian Stuart Donaldson, a moderately successful singer in a punk band calling itself Skrewdriver, turned to the extreme right and the National Front where he became a youth leader and racist ideologist. He was an early member of Rock Against Communism, bringing together the bands that played what had come to be known as “white noise”, and organised concerts and recordings. As white power music grew in strength, it branched out and spread to other countries. New record companies came on the scene: Rock-O-Rama in Germany and Rebelles Européens in France. Donaldson helped to found Rock Against Communism in Sweden in the mid-1980s, and Swedish bands formed rallying points for young skinheads with Nazi ideals.
This was undoubtedly something new: Nazism in association with modern popular culture. The old men of the Swedish National Association could never have imagined anything like it.
Neo-Nazi culture made its way into other spheres as well. Football hooligans in Britain provided yet another rallying point for the National Front and other fascist organisations. Soon racist chants were being heard in Sweden, too, and so-called supporters took to mimicking ape noises when a black player on the opposing team (or sometimes on their own) got the ball.
There was a marked escalation in rightwing extremist violence in Sweden. Those who came off worst were the sections of society the neo-Nazis really detested: Jews, immigrants and homosexuals. In Gothenburg in the mid-1980s two homosexuals were murdered by neo-Nazis. Vera Oredsson, the Nordic Reich party leader, defended the murders by asserting, “It was cleansing. We don’t regard homosexuals as human beings.”
Nazi groups in Sweden persecuted people with threatening phone calls and letters, surveillance, graffiti, unordered deliveries and the like. Threats were directed at politicians and celebrities who had expressed anti-racist opinions, but also against anti-racist activists and members of Jewish associations. Other favourite Nazi tricks were damaging or firebombing political buildings and leftwing bookshops, and vandalising Jewish cemeteries. The violence culminated on Midsummer Eve 1986, when skinheads beat 20-year-old Ronny Landin to death on the coast in Nynäshamn, 50km south of Stockholm, as he tried to intervene in a fight between immigrants and neo-Nazis. Later that same year, at Halloween, a skinhead, Ronny Öhman, was murdered by four youths, most of them of immigrant origin, after an argument. Violence had become part of everyday life in Sweden. And it was obvious what subject would provide a unified focus for the Swedish rightwing extremists.
On the cusp of the 1990s, more or less by chance, Stieg Larsson had the opportunity to consolidate in book form the vast amount of knowledge he had accumulated on the far right. The journalist Anna-Lena Lodenius had published a book in 1988 under the title Operation Right Turn, written with the philosopher Sven Ove Hansson, and they had planned to write a second book which would take a more sweeping look at the ultra right, but Hansson was offered another commission and suggested Stieg Larsson instead. The two authors met and decided on a comprehensive presentation of organisations on the far right, their history and the development of their ideas. It would also provide an outline of rightwing extremism in the most significant countries of Europe and in the US.
Larsson’s powerful motivation meant that he found it difficult to compromise. “When we discussed the structure of the book there were hardly any problems,” said Lodenius. “But when he gave me his finished text it would be something quite different from what we had decided. When I pointed that out, he could not see it as a difficulty.” In the end they divided the book between them and worked independently on separate sections, Lodenius on the Swedish and Scandinavian chapters and Larsson on all aspects of the international scene.
The book, Extremhögern (The Far Right), received a lot of attention when it came out, with publicity for the authors themselves and invitations to TV chat shows.
“But Stieg hated such appearances, so I had to take them all on,” Lodenius remembers. “He became a skilful public speaker later, but he never liked doing it without meticulous preparation.”
The book also meant that the authors came under more fire from the increasingly militant neo-Nazis. A couple of years after the first edition appeared, the Swedish Nazi skinhead magazine Storm published a list of names, photographs, addresses and telephone numbers of about 15 well-known Swedes, including the chief of police and the chairman of the police union, with an exhortation that these people should be “lined up against the wall”. Anna-Lena Lodenius and Stieg Larsson were among them. In her case the magazine urged its readers to “cut short her career”. The editor was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of incitement to hatred, the first time in Sweden that anyone was convicted for a threat expressed in print. But Anna-Lena Lodenius found the price for this sort of exposure too high.
“I had recently had a child, and for me the family had to come first. I was not prepared to sacrifice as much as Stieg was. I don’t think he really understood my position. He just wanted to keep going further. The fascists had to be exposed and called to account. He wanted to show no mercy.”
In 1991, the year the book was published, Sweden entered a new and dramatic phase. The credit market had been deregulated in 1985, introducing the period of so-called Santa Claus credit. Property values shot up, to be succeeded by the inevitable crash. The crisis brought not only unemployment and fear in its wake, but also extremism and xenophobia. The press agency TT, where Stieg Larsson still had his full-time job, was sending out regular reports of arson attacks, Molotov cocktails thrown at refugee camps and assaults on individual immigrants, bombs hurled into immigrant-owned shops, crucifix-burning in immigrants’ gardens and so on. From 1989 to 1991 there were 90 such incidents. They were described as a series of deplorable offences without any real connection. Sweden did not want to admit that it had a wave of terror on its hands.
In August 1991, in the middle of the most intensive of election campaigns, an Eritrean student was shot and wounded in Stockholm. The victim thought he had seen a dancing red spot on his jacket before the bullet hit him. Then in October an Iranian student was shot in the head, but survived, and shortly after that there were two more such attacks. It seemed there was a madman on the loose, aiming a laser weapon at dark-skinned people, and shooting to kill. The newspapers christened him Laser Man. In early 1992, he shot six people in the course of one month, two on the same day. The victims survived, but the public mood was growing tense and immigrants no longer felt safe on the streets.
Jan Lindström, a journalist on Expressen, called Laser Man “the personification of the prevailing mood in Sweden”. Stieg Larsson knew that Laser Man could be seen as a role model and was praised as such in neo-Nazi papers. He was a man for his time, although Sweden did not want to acknowledge that.
Expo: a new magazine
In the spring of 1995, a group of young people met in Stockholm to discuss the possibility of launching a new magazine. Most of them knew one another already and had some kind of background in journalism, and most had been active in anti-racist campaigns. Stieg Larsson was much older and considerably more experienced than the rest, and described his own role at this point as “a sort of consultant”, which was definitely an understatement.
With its rather dreary A4 format, its lack of colour printing and its cheap paper, the magazine didn’t look much. The name, typographically rendered as eXpo, was also its logo and identifying device. The editorial box gave an impression of semi-secrecy with its abbreviated name-forms (M. Karlsson, J. Larsson), but on the back cover they were able to list a number of well-known politicians, religious leaders, writers, musicians and sports stars who endorsed the new project and indicated the breadth of coverage it was aiming at.
Stieg Larsson wanted to create a Swedish Searchlight or something like it − not simply to publish a magazine, but also to build up a solid archive of information on the far right. He had collected a large amount of material himself before the arrival of Expo. Now the opportunity had arisen to assemble a comprehensive archive consisting of printed matter, press cuttings, books and other information on the ultra right, not least their own newspapers, magazines, leaflets, records, catalogues, stickers and so on.
He wanted Expo to co-operate with the world of research, and the knowledge and documentation the magazine possessed to have a broader application. It would be via contacts and recognition in the academic world that Expo would throw off its reputation of being a journal for political activists and achieve recognised expert status in its field.
Many of its writers were anonymous. Outsiders were not admitted without checks. As well as protecting themselves, this must also have contributed to the air of mystery surrounding the magazine. In the first issue of 1996 Stieg wrote an article on the formation of the National Alliance, which he called “the big political event of the winter for the far right”. There were very good reasons to take the National Alliance seriously, he argued. The sanitised far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, was in decline, while white power music was in the ascendant, which created a situation that radicalised the young towards the right.
The singling out of the National Alliance caused Expo to be seen as a thorn in the flesh of the neo-Nazis and they began a campaign against the magazine in the spring of 1996, including attacks, harassment and menaces against individuals and firms that had dealings with it. One of the targets was Expo’s printing house, Guiden Tryck, in Bromma. Windows were smashed and swastikas sprayed on the walls with warnings not to print the magazine. The printers said they were no longer willing to risk printing it, many retailers refused to stock it, and Expo’s position became precarious.
It was unprecedented in Sweden for a publication to risk closure because of threats from those of different convictions. The evening newspapers Aftonbladet and Expressen agreed they would both publish Expo’s latest issue on the same day, June 10, as a supplement to their papers. Expo, with an average distribution of 2,000 copies, suddenly jumped to over 800,000.
The campaign against Expo represented an own-goal by the neo-Nazis. The National Alliance was dissolved shortly afterwards, though the young activists soon found new groups to join. Expo’s problems continued. Despite the free publicity in the media, it was hard to balance the books. The print run had to be reduced and, as with all non-profit journals with almost non-existent income, holding on to staff proved difficult. By the end of 1997 Expo was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Stieg Larsson turned to the journalist Kurdo Baksi with a proposal. He wanted Expo to be included as a separate and clearly defined section of Baksi’s multicultural magazine Svartvitt (Black and White), with Baksi as editor-in-chief and publisher for the merged magazines. Baksi agreed and the plan was implemented in the autumn of 1998.
Larsson was convinced that Expo had to continue publication. The threat from neo-Nazi groups would not diminish. Events over the ensuing year would prove him right.
On October 12 1999, a man was found lying dead outside the door of his flat in the Stockholm suburb of Sätra. He had been shot 10 times with a .22 calibre pistol. He was identified as Björn Söderberg, a trade union official, an anti-Nazi and keen sportsman. The motive was clear enough. Söderberg had been working at the warehouse of the office supplies company Esselte Svanström in Stockholm. When he realised that a member of the committee of the local branch of the Swedish commercial employees’ union was an active Nazi, he tipped off the newspaper Arbetaren, which had published an article about it.
The man in question, Robert Vesterlund, was editor of the leading neo-Nazi journal, Info-14, and though he was cleared of the charge of inciting the murder, he was convicted for illegal possession of firearms and possession of anabolic steroids. The police arrested three men for the shooting. When they searched their homes, they found material indicating that the men were active distributors of Nazi propaganda and engaged in compiling a register of political opponents. Two were each sentenced to 11 years in prison for the shooting and the third was convicted as an accessory.
For Larsson this was not violence or murder in the normal sense, it was political terrorism. The authorities, the police and the security services seemed to have trouble recognising it. The usual picture of rightwing extremists was that they might be full of hatred and aggression, but that they were not particularly clever or well-organised. Yet in fact these groups had been honing their methods for years, learnt to use new technology and developed a quite sophisticated intelligence network.
A few weeks before the murder, copies of Söderberg’s passport photograph and a score of others, including Stieg Larsson’s, had been stolen from the police passport files. This was nothing new. Larsson was probably the person most under threat in the whole of Sweden. His name appeared on neo-Nazi websites. He was constantly receiving threats in the form of anonymous letters and telephone messages. He coped because he had learnt to be careful and adopted strict safety procedures. When he went to a café he preferred to sit with his back to the wall. When the TT press agency had its offices on Kungsholmstorg, a group of neo-Nazis was waiting for him in the park across the street, armed with baseball bats. But he took his usual rear exit from the office as a security measure, spotted them in time and was able to slip back into the building. He brought together his knowledge in a brochure for the Swedish journalists association entitled Surviving the Deadline: A Handbook for Journalists under Threat, in which he discussed various risk scenarios and gave sound practical advice to vulnerable journalists.
This safety-consciousness was also the reason he and his partner Eva Gabrielsson never married, so that they could avoid being traced through official registers. Even so, Stieg usually wrote under his own name in Expo, and in the autumn of 1999 the journal announced that in future the editorial staff would include their photograph in their byline to demonstrate that they would not be intimidated by perpetrators of violence.
In 2003 Stieg Larsson became editor-in-chief of Expo. In practice he had had that role for a while, but it was only when Expo resumed publication in its own right (after Svartvitt folded), that he was formally designated. Once again, the financial situation was precarious. Some of the staff doubted the ability of Expo to continue independently at all, or thought it might only publish on the web. But that was never an alternative for Stieg. Expo had to be published in print to play its part authoritatively in the public debate.
“To be honest,” says Daniel Poohl, who was the editorial secretary from 2003 and is now editor-in-chief, “I have to say that Expo wasn’t very professionally run at that stage. Stieg was no expert at managing a magazine. It was always a struggle putting copy together and making people stick to deadlines. We were often late getting it to the printers.”
But Expo came out as it always did. Larsson bore the burden of its financial problems, making grant applications and approaches to potential sponsors that often resulted in disappointment. Daniel Olsson, who joined the magazine as a young freelancer, remembered, “He would return from a meeting to report that so-and-so was now with us and we’re going to mount a campaign together. And then nothing would come of it. I don’t know how he managed to keep it up year after year. But you could see he was wearying of it.”
Otherwise things carried on as usual. Stieg sat writing with his feet up on his desk and his white Apple Mac on his lap. It was taken for granted that he was the hub of the editorial process. He had become the accepted authority who was consulted by well-known politicians, and who gave lectures on violent rightwing extremists to the police, even to Scotland Yard.
And all this while he was writing away at his thrillers. His colleagues found it slightly puzzling that he made no secret of it. “Stieg talked about his books the way others talk about their hobbies,” says Poohl. “I remember asking once how it was going, and he said that the characters had taken on lives of their own; they were doing things he hadn’t thought they were capable of − it was fantastic. It made me realise how serious it was, that he really had become a novelist, because he was even expressing himself differently from normal.”
The publishers had given Stieg every indication of having scented a bestseller in the making. He was by no means averse to that: it would ensure not only his own financial security but also the future of Expo, and enable him to give money to other causes, including women’s refuges, which he regarded as vital.
One day in the autumn of 2004, he found himself in a taxi driven by an old colleague from TT. He told the driver about the novels and his publisher’s belief in them: “Can you imagine? It looks as if I’m going to be bigger than Mankell!”
On the evening of November 9 2004 – the anniversary of Kristallnacht – Stieg was booked to appear at the Workers’ Educational Association hall in Stockholm. During the day he would be working at Expo. Eva Gabrielsson had gone up to Falun in Dalarna on a job, and Stieg took the bus to the editorial offices on Kungsholmen. When he arrived he found the lift out of order, so he had no option but to climb the seven flights of stairs to the office. He greeted his colleagues and all seemed normal. But then they noticed that something was not quite right. Stieg looked incredibly pale and he suddenly slumped across his desk and fell to the floor. His colleagues rushed over, could not make him respond, and realised it was serious.
They immediately phoned for an ambulance, which arrived within minutes and rushed him off to the nearby St Görans hospital.
Mikael Ekman was on his way to Umeå, Larsson’s home town, that day to give a lecture on Swedish neo-Nazism and take part in a rally to commemorate Kristallnacht. He was also going to call on Stieg’s father, Erland, as Stieg had asked him to.
At the airport Mikael received a phone call from Ulrika Svensson at Expo to tell him that Stieg had collapsed and been rushed to hospital. He rang Eva Gabrielsson and his Expo colleague David Lagerlöf. Then he switched off his phone and got on the plane. When he arrived in Umeå he didn’t switch it back on. He knew things looked bad for Stieg, but he was determined to carry out his commitments.
“When I’d given the lecture and was on my way to the rally I turned on my phone and found a number of messages, all with the same news: Stieg had died.”
Eva Gabrielsson took a plane back to Stockholm as soon as she got the call on her mobile phone, despite the sketchy information. Arriving at the hospital that evening she was given the devastating news.
Erland Larsson was on his way home from doing some family history research in the local library when his partner Gun came to meet him and tell him that Stieg had collapsed. He managed to get a phone number for the hospital, but it was a mobile, and the doctor he spoke to “just rambled on and knew nothing”. Erland also caught the first available flight to Stockholm to sit by his son’s sickbed. “But when I got there they told me he was dead. It just makes you want to die yourself.”
Mikael flew down by the first plane in the morning. He met Eva and Erland in the lift up to Expo. He says he had kept a stiff upper lip after the news the day before, but as soon as he crossed the threshold into the office he “started to cry like a baby”, because it was so empty.
The future seemed so uncertain. What would happen to Expo now?
At that point hardly anyone was giving a thought to Stieg’s as yet unpublished novels. The notion that everything was going to change, be turned upside down, because of those books was not even a glimmer on the horizon.
This is an edited extract from ‘Stieg’ by Jan-Erik Pettersson © 2011, translation copyright 2011, Tom Geddes, published by Quercus on March 31
The battle over the literary legacy continues
“Go and treat yourselves to a coffee together somewhere. Live life to the full and have fun,” is how Stieg Larsson signed off his unwitnessed, and thus invalid will in the 1970s. He never wrote another.
Larsson and Eva Gabrielsson never married. They had planned several times to formalise their relationship, but what dissuaded them was primarily Stieg’s anti-Nazi activities and all the threats he received. Nazi groups used public records to locate and harass their opponents, but because Larsson was not registered at his home address or in the register of marriages he was not easy to find.
After the Swedish publishing house Norstedts took on the novels, Gabrielsson said that Stieg intended to form a company jointly with her into which the income from the books would be paid. She thought the publisher was going to set up and manage such a company, whereas Norstedts insists there must have been a misunderstanding, since it never runs companies on behalf of authors.
Swedish law gives very little protection to unmarried partners in the event of the death of one of them. The surviving partner is not the heir of the deceased, but simply has a right to a half-share of the household goods and joint residence, irrespective of how long the couple has lived together. So when the division of property was made in the spring of 2005, Stieg’s inheritance, plus the copyright in his literary works and half of the joint residence went to his father, Erland, and his brother, Joakim. Larsson’s common-law wife of more than 30 years was in effect left nothing.
Since the copyright passed to Stieg’s father and brother, Norstedts had to liaise with them on all matters pertaining to the future of the books. Numerous contracts were signed in 2005 and 2006, for translations into various languages, different editions, and also a film option and then firm contract with Yellow Bird [which produced the Millennium films]. Erland and Joakim Larsson felt that the circumstances obliged them to take responsibility for overseeing the process and ensuring that new projects continued.
Eva Gabrielsson wanted to take over control of all the literary work herself. She maintained that this was more important than the money. She felt it was logical because she was the one who knew Stieg’s intentions with his writing. The then chairman of Expo drew up a draft contract separating the financial aspects of copyright from the intellectual ones and allocating the latter to Eva Gabrielsson, who would receive appropriate remuneration. The Larssons, however, were not prepared to relinquish full responsibility for control of the literary estate, and rejected the proposal.
One element of disagreement concerned the uncompleted manuscript of the fourth volume of the series which was in Stieg’s computer when he died. In formal terms the computer was the property of Expo, and Daniel Poohl had checked through it after Stieg’s death to see whether it contained any important Expo matters. He was not interested in whatever literary texts might have been there. Where the computer went then has remained a secret. The incomplete text has been assumed to be somewhere in the region of 150 to 300 pages in length. Joakim Larsson says that Stieg had written in an e-mail shortly before he died that the book was almost finished.
Eva Gabrielsson wanted to have the manuscript, as part of an agreement on the control of the works, in order to ensure its completion if necessary; whereas Erland and Joakim thought it should be handed over to Norstedts so that the publisher could decide whether it was viable, and so that it could be ensured that the income from sales would go to Expo, as Stieg had wished.
In the autumn of 2005, Erland and Joakim Larsson’s lawyer sent a draft division of inheritance agreement to Gabrielsson. It proposed that they should transfer the half of the property they had inherited to her, and that she should hand over the computer and the fourth manuscript. After that, negotiations could begin about financial recompense or a royalties’ percentage for her from any forthcoming book. The lawyer later informed her that they were considering going to court for an order to produce a document (i.e. the manuscript), which Eva regarded as blackmail − she would only be allowed to keep the apartment if she handed over the computer. Joakim Larsson has asserted that he sent an e-mail to Eva explaining that they were not going to pursue this course and told her to delete the clause about the computer if she so wished. They intended to give her the other half-share in the property anyway, as indeed was subsequently done.
There is no suggestion that either faction is motivated by ill will, and both have expressed their desire to reach an agreement, but so far it has proved impossible. Erland and Joakim Larsson have announced that they are willing to give a specified sum from the inheritance to Gabrielsson and that they are prepared to discuss how control of the works can be shared. Gabrielsson has insisted that the vital element for her is the sole trusteeship of Stieg’s literary legacy in its entirety, and that she would undertake that in return for a low percentage of the royalties.
The parties announced in 2008 that they had agreed not to publish the fourth Millennium novel. But to what extent that decision is set in stone is another matter entirely.