Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack on November 9, 2004, at age 50, shortly before The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was published. When the book began dominating bestseller lists across the globe, many wondered how a debut novel could posthumously become the most culturally influential thriller of a generation. But Larsson did not emerge out of nowhere. He had long been renown in Sweden as a journalist devoted to unmasking neo-Nazi, white supremacist and extremist organizations lurking within the fabric of Europe.
The same subjects that were his impetus as a journalist – corporate crime, anti-democratic forces, abuse of power, violence against women, questions of immigration, xenophobia and racism – became the core themes of his Millennium series. Though these subjects were not unfamiliar to the crime genre, it was Larsson’s unsentimental emphasis on normally invisible characters, on ethics, the freedom of the individual and the nature of retribution that set his tone apart, and added to the sheer entertainment of his storytelling.
Larsson was born in 1954 as Karl Stig-Erland Larsson, and as a small child, lived with his grandparents in Norrland, a rugged area of northern Sweden similar to that depicted in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (It is also an area with a strong tale-telling tradition and associated with many of Sweden’s most famed writers.)
As a boy, he came under the influence of his fervently anti-fascist grandfather and politically active parents, who instilled in Stieg an early fascination with democracy and politics. When his grandfather died of a heart attack at age 56, Larsson moved back with his parents in the city, experiencing both sides of Swedish society. His parents fatefully borrowed money to buy him a typewriter when he was 14, and he immediately began to write stories, though he would soon follow the path of a journalist, before returning to fiction later in life.
It was also as a teenager that Larsson had a devastating experience that would later spark some of the brutal events in the Millennium series, according to his long-time friend Kurdo Baksi. Baksi wrote in several articles that at the age of 15, Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a young girl, but found himself unable to intervene, which seared in him a life-long anger at the exploitation of women and a desire, according to Baksi, “to do something about senseless violence.”
After performing his compulsory military service, Larsson turned to activism in his 20s. He traveled widely through Africa, spending time aiding Eritrean rebels in their civil war. In 1977, he began writing for Sweden’s largest news agency, Tidningarnas Telegrambyra, where he would be a features writer and graphic designer for most of his adult life. Much like the character of Michael Blomkvist, he also developed a research specialty: exposing the virulently racist and nationalist groups emerging as a serious threat in Europe in the 80s and 90s. He served as a Scandinavian correspondent for Searchlight, an antifascist British magazine, then founded Expo Magazine in Sweden to carry on the same mission. His expertise became such that he lectured at Scotland Yard on how neo-fascists across Europe were using the internet to coordinate.
This part of Larsson’s life would bring him into close contact with extremist violence as well as those drawn to fight it, including a number of shrewd computer researchers, which would be key to his characterizations in the Millennium series. Larsson also experienced first-hand the high risks of his moral convictions, receiving death threats and witnessing a colleague survive a firebombed car. At Expo, Larsson also collaborated on an anthology about honor killings, which further drove his interest in bringing attention to the systematic abuse of women even in diverse societies such as Sweden.
Although Larsson had long been a passionate fan of science fiction, and told friends he hoped to write a detective novel, it was not until the late 90s that he quietly began penning a thriller – while on vacation and after work — about all the things that mattered most to him, which he titled Men Who Hate Women. (Only later, with its U.K. and U.S. publication, would the book be re-titled The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo as an ode to Lisbeth Salander’s lure.) The story revolved around two characters who propelled the themes: the journalist Blomkvist, an apparent alter-ego to Larsson, and Salander, who Larsson said he felt was someone never seen before in crime fiction, a dysfunctional outsider living by her own ethical code. Much as he resembled Blomkvist, Larsson also shared a considerable amount in common with Salander, from a cigarette habit to a penchant for personal secrecy.
Larsson wrote all three of the Millennium novels before he submitted them to publishers as a complete trilogy. The first publisher rejected the manuscripts. The second, Norstedts Forlag, saw their potential, though even they could not anticipate the way in which the books, and Salander in particular, would soon tap into the cultural zeitgeist. Yet, before the novels would even be printed, Larsson had a massive coronary after climbing seven flights of stairs to his Stockholm office. In 2005, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously to widespread acclaim and popularity. The novel won the coveted Glass Key Award for the Best Nordic Crime novel and was soon the must-read of the season, then of the decade.
Even so, Larsson’s long-time partner, Eva Gabrielsson, has said that it isn’t the accolades Larsson would care about had he lived to see the impact of his books. In a speech to the Spanish Observatory on Domestic Violence, which gave Larsson a posthumous award in 2009, she said: “Stieg Larsson was not interested in public attention about himself as a private person. To become a media celebrity was for him unthinkable. Writing just for money as a mainstream journalist or commercial author was his very nightmare. He did not want to be visible like that. Stieg Larsson wanted to make people and societies visible.”