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Page last updated at 09:53 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

In search of Stieg Larsson

UK covers of the Millennium trilogy

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Having sold 25 million copies of his Millennium trilogy, been named the biggest author in Europe and with a movie adaptation due out in the US and UK, 2010 is a big year for Stieg Larsson. Or it would be if he hadn't died suddenly in 2004, before any of his books were published.

Normally when an author finds great success they are around to satisfy the curiosity of their readers.

Stieg Larsson
A slew of Stieg Larsson biographies are due out this year

They do signings and interviews, explaining their influences and inspirations, and allow the reader to unpick the characters, themes and plots. At the same time they let the general public establish whether they are interesting in themselves, or only because of their work.

So perhaps the fact Stieg Larsson died in 2004, before the publication of his first book, explains the level of curiosity about his life.

The Swedish author's thrillers have been a publishing sensation. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Men That Hate Women, in Swedish], The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest [The Castle in the Air That Blew Up, in Swedish] feature Mikael Blomkvist, a principled investigative journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, an aloof, eccentric but brilliant young, female private investigator.

Larsson fans will know the author's basic back story. He was a left-wing journalist who started out as a graphic designer at a Swedish news agency before becoming a leading investigator of far-right political movements. In his spare time - and at night when he could not sleep - he wrote novels.

Kenneth Branagh as Wallander
Stieg Larsson, 26 million copies sold
Henning Mankell, creator of Wallander (pictured above)
Camilla Lackberg, sets thrillers in home town of Fjallbacka
Jens Lapidus, lawyer and author of Stockholm Noir trilogy

A Swedish publisher became interested in the spring of 2004, and Larsson immediately delivered two manuscripts before finishing the last part of the trilogy in the summer. He died of a heart attack a few months later at the age of 50. Released the next year, the first of the books was quickly a bestseller in Sweden and picked up elsewhere, generating millions for the Larsson estate.

The distribution of the estate generated headlines, with it widely reported that his partner Eva Gabrielsson, who Larsson never married but spent three decades with, would not be entitled to a penny because there was no valid will. Instead, his father and brother are the legal heirs.

And as well as his financial legacy, there is a battle over the personality of Larsson himself with a slew of biographies due out this year, perhaps to coincide with the release of a Swedish film adaptation in the UK and US in March.

Kurdo Baksi, who worked with Larsson on the anti-fascist magazine Expo, and who had known him since 1992, has just released a book entitled My Friend Stieg Larsson. His suggestion that Larsson was not a leading light of journalism has proved controversial in Sweden.

"Many people are angry," says Baksi. "He is a god in Sweden."

Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation, distributed by Momentum Films in the UK
Lisbeth Salander is a socially distant investigator with a photographic memory

But the controversy over Baksi's book may be dwarfed by the storm generated by another old colleague of Larsson. Anders Hellberg believes there is no way Larsson could have written the prose in the Millennium trilogy.

He worked with Larsson at the TT news agency in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Larsson was a designer. He edited the text that Larsson produced to go alongside graphics and he was not impressed.

"This was not professional writing. Everything was wrong, the order of the words, the syntax - it was not professional language.

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"To write is a kind of talent. You can learn up to a certain level to write. Stieg in my view could not have written the novels."

Hellberg, who made his revelations in an article in Sweden's leading newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Friday, does not know for certain who else may have written the novels, but he said it might be plausible to suggest Larsson's partner Ms Gabrielsson, an architect, played a big part.

"Stranger things have happened than two people [where] one does the plot, the research, the story and the other one is writing. She has written a lot in underground papers. She is a very good writer, I've been told."

There is no evidence that Ms Gabrielsson did any of the writing, admits Hellberg. It has been suggested that her contribution to the work was proofreading and assistance on description of architectural detail. But it is not clear why, if Ms Gabrielsson was responsible for more, she would not have already made it clear. Her forthcoming book may make her position on the matter clearer. Ms Gabrielsson was unavailable for comment.

Hellberg has also been on the receiving end of fan ire for his theory.

Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish adaptation, distributed by Momentum Films in the UK
Mikael Blomkvist is a principled investigative journalist

"The reaction from my fellow Swedes and also some others is quite angry. Normal Stieg Larsson readers don't like this. I've committed some kind of crime to raise the question. Some of the mail is not pleasant."

The idea that Larsson couldn't write and therefore is not responsible for the prose in the trilogy is dismissed by others who knew him, like Anna-Lena Lodenius, who worked with him on a book about neo-Nazis in the early 90s.

"When we worked together he wasn't that good in the beginning but that was a long time ago," says Lodenius.

"If you read the books you can hear his voice. It is like he is next to you. It is his words, his expression. You can hear it."

She does not think it strange that someone with little track record of writing fiction could suddenly turn out a series of bestsellers.

"He read an enormous amount of crime stories and true crime. He was very interested in female writers like Sara Paretsky [who created the character of VI Warshawski].

"I was maybe a little bit surprised that he was able to write this kind of thriller, books that you can't put down. He learnt by reading I think. For me it's quite obvious that he was a good writer."

But it's not obvious how Larsson would have coped with being the most famous man in Sweden. Unprompted, the first adjective Baksi, Hellberg and Lodenius use to describe him is "shy". He was a sociable man, but not one who thrived when addressing a room full of strangers.

Wall of picturesin film version, distributed by Momentum Films in the UK
The stories are thrillers with obvious political undertones

Baksi - who calls Larsson one of his best friends - describes him as "a little bit Pippi Longstocking, a little bit Dalai Lama".

There is no doubt that there is interest in the idea of someone never living to see their fame. The singer Eva Cassidy is a recent example. There is a poignancy in having to simultaneously celebrate the arrival, and mourn the passing, of an artist.

But crime writer and critic Joan Smith says Larsson's success is all about the books.

"When I first started reading the first one I was struck by how extraordinarily modern it was. The second thing was he has an understanding of male violence towards women which is relatively unusual in crime fiction."

Steven Murray, who translated the trilogy into English, says the political and moral undertone of the books - which touches on corruption in big business, the inadequacy of journalists, the legacy of Nazism, and violence against women - appeals to readers.

"They are addictively paced in spite of the many digressions, which most readers think just add to the appeal somehow. And I believe the pervasive moral view adds something that is missing in most thrillers."

Even without his untimely death in 2004, Stieg Larsson's story would still be remarkable.

A man, approaching middle age, and with no track record of writing fiction, knocks out a trilogy of thrillers, gets a publishing deal, but dies before being thrust into superstardom.

Below is a selection of your comments.

We are way behind Europe in this. There's not just one film but three, all released in Europe in 2009. The first film premiered in the UK at the Cambridge Film Festival in September. I guess we will get a dubbed version which is I think a real shame.
Deb, Reading

I am surprised you didn't include John Kennedy Toole in your piece, wrote Neon Jesus aged 16, then Confederacy of Dunces. Neither were picked up. He killed himself. His mother took the books to a university professor in New Orleans and Toole received the Pullitzer posthumously, The Confederacy of Dunces being voted one of America's (and my) favourite books.
Darren Smith, London

About time that some of the Scandinavian detective writers were recognised - one of my favourites is the Norwegian Jo Nesbø. Both Nemesis and The Devil's Star are well worth reading and check out Missing by Karin Alvtegen another Swedish writer. This book won the Glass Key, the Nordic literature award for best crime fiction.
Humphrey Stephenson, Horsham, West Sussex

While his books are an entertaining read, and Lisbeth Salander is a great character, they're really quite badly written. How much of that is down to bad translation, and how much is down to them needing a good editor is uncertain, but the author's attempts to prove his nu-man feminist credentials are largely undermined by his adolescent and misogynistic sexual fantasies. If anything, the guy claiming Larsson didn't write them is doing him a posthumous favour.
Andy H-L, Haywards Heath, UK

When I was paying for my newspapers I noticed this book next to the till. Not sure why, but I picked it up and I could not put it down! One of your feedback said "they're really quite badly written"... well, go and read William Shakespeare's books. Its all about imagination and I really enjoyed all 3 books and cant wait to see the films.
Andrea Kuvikova, Camberley

I agree with Andy H-L. The books could do with a half decent editor. I don't think it is just a translation issue - as the main weaknesses are in plot structure with two many chapters that could be dropped without changing the readers understanding of the story. There is one chapter that is more or less just a list of purchases from Ikea: I'd prefer to read the store catalogue, thanks. It has to be said that Lisbeth Salander is a great creation - it is a shame she was not the editor, because a few back sides need kicking.
Roger C, Southampton

I've read the first book in English and the second in Swedish and I do think that the translation isn't as good as it could have been. There are many fine Scandinavian writers who I hope will get an audience because of Stieg Larsson's success. I'm hopeful that an undubbed version of the films will be shown in the UK.
Sarah, Cambridge, UK

Always the same isn't it.... Especially when someone is sadly, safely dead for all the know-all vultures to descend on. "He's not that good really", "Couldn't have written it" and best of all "Badly written." I bet the authoritative non entities responsible for the comments below that article and jealous writers quoted wish they could write so badly. The trilogy is wonderful, gripping stuff I just couldn't put down and what a shame there aren't more. Does everything enjoyable have to be micro analysed?
Jonathan, Colchester

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