Stieg Larsson: the man behind the books

While Stieg Larsson's Millennium crime trilogy turned him into a global phenomenon, the late Swedish author never dreamed of being famous, his Swedish biographer tells The Local's Geoff Mortimore.

Stieg Larsson: the man behind the books

The worldwide sensation sparked by the Millennium crime trilogy put Swedish crime fiction very much on the map and turned its author, Stieg Larsson, into a name as synonymous with Sweden as Abba or Björn Borg.

Despite the enormous success of the books, a definitive posthumous biography of Larsson by Swedish author and journalist Jan-Erik Pettersson has only recently been published in English.

“I spoke with the publisher and we agreed it was strange that despite the gigantic success, even in 2009, nobody had done a book about Stieg Larsson himself,” says Pettersson.

“Even though we had worked together and shared similar political ideals, I didn’t know him personally, which helped because we didn’t want to produce a tribute kind of book and I wasn’t so keen on lingering on the aspects of the family conflict for example.”

Entitled, “Stieg: From Activist to Author”, the book was originally published in Swedish in 2010 and portrays Larsson as a deeply politically motivated personality with an incredibly prolific creative drive, always on the lookout to try out new things.

The irony, bearing in mind his success, is that writing books was apparently merely a fun hobby for Larsson.

“He certainly wasn’t someone who dreamed of becoming a best-selling author. It is strange in these times that in this media age we see so many people desperate almost to be famous, regardless sometimes of what for,” says Pettersson.

“Stieg wasn’t like that. Like some other really well-known Swedes, his popularity was almost by accident, someone who quietly ‘gets on with things’ but still gains recognition. It is similar if you like in the case of Astrid Lindgren, or Ingmar Stenmark,” he adds, referencing the famous children’s author and Olympic gold medal alpine skier.

Larsson was also fortunate to be riding a wave of interest in Nordic thriller writing, headed by the likes of Henning Mankell and perhaps to a lesser extent Jan Guillou.

Starting in the late 1990s, they had both laid the groundwork not just in Scandinavia but also in Germany, which also proved to be helpful in bringing attention to Larsson’s books.

In the biography, it is revealed that Larsson preferred American and British thrillers to their Swedish counterparts.

His special talent, according to Pettersson, was in identifying a common desire for something that combined the Anglo-Saxon style with the more earthy, socially engaged values of Scandinavians.

“He knew people liked the realism of the Swedish authors, but Larsson added touches, played with the characters more,” he explains.

“Salander, for example, is almost a cartoon-like figure, far removed from your ‘average Swede’. At the same time other, types in the books are completely believable.”

Those reading the biography hoping to find out how much of the Millennium books were autobiographical, and perhaps who the role models were behind the main protagonists, are in for a disappointment, however.

“I think all authors base characters on certain real people or events, and Stieg was no exception, but there are no obvious direct influences,” says Pettersson.

“Those who work at Expo, for example, would recognise some of the characteristics in certain people, the motorcycle gangs for example, in the books without necessarily being able to put a name to them. The same could be said for the Vangers as well, with their disturbing extremist background, which was typical of many such families at the time.”

Similarly it is natural to see parallels between the Millennium magazine of the books and Expo, which was such a huge part of Larsson’s life.

“I think he saw Millennium as the dream scenario for Expo. The former had the kind of resources and readership that Stieg would have loved to have in real life,” says Pettersson.

He adds that, the more he researched the book, the more he was almost in awe of how much work Larsson was able to produce given the immense pressure he was under and which probably led indirectly to his early death.

Another revelation, which becomes clear throughout the book, is how Larsson was aware at such an early stage of the danger posed by far-right groups and how their growing influence around Europe would inevitably lead to the formation of organised less overtly racist, but equally dangerous political parties in Sweden.

Larsson realised there would be a direct link from the National Front in Britain and Le Pen in France, for example, to the Sweden Democrats today.

The question remains, though, how circumstances played their part in the success of the books – As the old saying goes “No-one sells like a dead pop star”.

While it will never be known whether Larsson’s untimely death helped the books become more popular, Pettersson agrees that it’s almost impossible not to speculate on what may have happened had he lived.

“The fact that he died helps feed the myth of course,” he says.

“We do know he was a prolific writer and had plans to write many books, but what it clear is that he would have used the attention and influence to push his political agenda and promote other projects. He said he would never be comfortable with the whole idea of ‘sitting on TV sofa doing the rounds of chat shows’, although whenever he was interviewed he was clever enough to get his points and motivations across.”

There is no doubt that “Stieg” won’t be the last book written about the late Swedish author, but it is an excellent in-depth look at the man behind the book and the phenomenon, not just of the trilogy itself but also the popularity of Nordic thriller writing.

Published in the UK in March by Quercus Publishing, the book will be available in North America in the autumn through Sterling Publishing.

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Lisbeth Salander is back in fifth Millennium book

The Millennium series' famous computer hacker Lisbeth Salander is set to grip readers' imaginations again as the fifth volume hits the bookshelves on Thursday.

Lisbeth Salander is back in fifth Millennium book
Author David Lagercrantz. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

The new book by the 55-year-old David Lagercrantz, titled 'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye', promised to reveal more secrets surrounding the mysterious Salander's troubled childhood and the true meaning behind her iconic dragon-shaped tattoo.

When Lagercrantz's 'The Girl in the Spider's Web', which received mixed reviews, was launched in 2015, he was met with overcrowded press conferences, journalists waiting in the queue for interviews, and he signed books until midnight.

The launch of the fifth volume is more low key as Lagercrantz will make no public appearance until he kicks off his book tour on September 10th.

'The Girl in the Spider's Web' was the first to continue the trilogy conceived by Stieg Larsson, who became one of the world's best-loved crime writers.

But Larsson's fame came posthumously as he died at the age of 50 from a heart attack in 2004, a year before the release of the first book in the series, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', followed by 'The Girl Who Played with Fire' (2006) and 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest' (2007).

'More banal'

While many Larsson fans rejoiced over the continuation of the trilogy when Lagercrantz was selected to write the fourth book, some – including Larsson's longtime partner Eva Gabrielsson – vehemently opposed him taking up the torch, calling him “a totally idiotic choice”.

“Everybody was very curious. We wanted to see if he was going to succeed,” Kerstin Bergman, literature professor at Lund University, told AFP.

“It was a good crime novel, very different from Stieg Larsson's,” she said, referring to the fourth book, which sold six million copies in 47 countries.

“There were introspective characters,” Bergman added.

Lagercrantz intends to transform the series and convince those who criticize his endeavour.

But as much as readers can't get enough of Salander's punk-rock style and feminist flair, the hype over Lagercrantz's continuation of the series is not what it used to be.

“Now it's more banal. People love characters and want to read about their adventures,” said Bergman, who is also a specialist in Nordic Noir, a genre that mixes crime fiction and social criticism.

“Continuing the series as it did is extremely unusual (…) it's an exclusively commercial project, but the choice of Lagercrantz is probably the best,” Bergman said.

'More sensitive character'

In 'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye', Lagercrantz throws Salander “into the worst prison for women, where she immediately encounters a lot of problems”, he told AFP in the spring.

Alongside Salander, readers will find Mikael Blomqvist, a talented investigative journalist who's also worn out by life.

As the duo investigate the abuse of power and the social injustice that Salander has gone through, they try to overcome new obstacles.

And if the author believes that Salander has seen enough in the previous crime novels, then the worst may be yet to come.

Lagercrantz has admitted that bringing this young woman with a dark past back to life in the books has caused him a headache. Contrary to Stieg Larsson, Lagercrantz said he would have chosen a heroine with a “sweeter, nicer and more sensitive” character.

In a relentless search for inspiration, Lagercrantz wrote on his publishing company's website that he interviewed “doctors, archivists, robotics researchers, Bangladeshi bloggers threatened to death” and visited a prison in south-eastern Sweden.

'The Girl Who Takes an Eye For an Eye' is to be published in 34 countries. Twenty-six of these countries, including Sweden, Britain, the United States, Germany and France, will release the book on Thursday.

A former journalist, Lagercrantz was previously best known for his biography of footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Lagercrantz has also signed on to write the sixth book, which he insisted would be his last in the series.

Article written by AFP's Camille Bas-Wohlert