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How Did Stieg Larsson Die?

Com­ment: In FTR #702, we exam­ined the polit­i­cal career of Tiger Woods’ moth­er-in-law (for­mer Swedish Immi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Bar­bro Holm­berg, accused of shel­ter­ing war crim­i­nals) and Swe­den’s his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions to fas­cism. In the Decem­ber issue of “Van­i­ty Fair,” Christo­pher Hitchens asks whether some of those con­nec­tions may have man­i­fest­ed them­selves in the death of not­ed Swedish author Stieg Lars­son.

“The Author Who Played with Fire” by Christo­pher Hitchens; Van­i­ty Fair; 12/2009. [1]

I sup­pose it’s jus­ti­fi­able to describe “best-sell­ing” in qua­si-tsuna­mi terms because when it hap­pens it’s part­ly a wall and part­ly a tide: first you see a tow­er­ing, glis­ten­ing ram­part of books in Cost­co and the nation’s air­ports and then you are hit by a series of suc­ceed­ing waves that deposit indi­vid­ual copies in the hands of peo­ple sit­ting right next to you. I was slight­ly won­der­ing what might come crash­ing in after Hur­ri­cane Khaled. I didn’t guess that the next great inun­da­tion would orig­i­nate not in the exot­ic kite-run­ning spaces at the roof of the world but from an epi­cen­ter made almost banal for us by Vol­vo, Abso­lut, Saab, and ikea.

Yet it is from this soci­ety, of reas­sur­ing brand names and womb-to-tomb nation­al health care, that Stieg Lars­son con­jured a detec­tive dou­ble act so incon­gru­ous that it makes Holmes and Wat­son seem like sib­lings. I say “con­jured” because Mr. Lars­son also drew upon the bloody, haunt­ed old Swe­den of trolls and elves and ogres, and I put it in the past tense because, just as the first book in his “Mil­len­ni­um” tril­o­gy, The Girl with the Drag­on Tat­too, was about to make his for­tune, he very sud­den­ly became a dead per­son. In the Lars­son uni­verse the nasty trolls and hulk­ing ogres are bent Swedish cap­i­tal­ists, cold-faced Baltic sex traf­fick­ers, blue-eyed Viking Aryan Nazis, and oth­er Nordic riffraff who might have had their rea­sons to whack him. But if he now dwells in that Val­hal­la of the hack writer who posthu­mous­ly beat all the odds, it’s sure­ly because of his elf. Pic­ture a fer­al waif. All right, pic­ture a four-foot-eleven-inch “doll” with Asperger’s syn­drome and gen­er­ous breast implants. This is not Pip­pi Long­stock­ing (to whom a few ges­tures are made in the nar­ra­tive). This is Miss Goth, inter­mit­tent­ly dis­guised as la gamine.

For­get Miss Smilla’s sense of the snow and check out Lis­beth Salander’s taste in pussy rings, tat­toos, girls, boys, motor­cy­cles, and, above all, com­put­er key­boards. (Once you accept that George Mac­Don­ald Fraser’s Flash­man can pick up any known lan­guage in a few days, you have sus­pend­ed enough dis­be­lief to set­tle down and enjoy his adven­tures.) Miss Salan­der is so well accou­tred with spe­cial fea­tures that she’s almost over-equipped. She is award­ed a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry, a chess mind to rival Bob­by Fischer’s, a math­e­mat­i­cal capac­i­ty that toys with Fermat’s last the­o­rem as a cat bats a mouse, and the abil­i­ty to “hack”—I apol­o­gize for the rep­e­ti­tion of that word—into the deep intesti­nal com­put­ers of all banks and police depart­ments. At the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, she is for good mea­sure grant­ed the abil­i­ty to return from the grave.

With all these super­heroine advan­tages, one won­ders why she and her on-and-off side­kick, the lum­ber­ing but unstop­pable reporter Mikael Blomkvist, don’t defeat the forces of Swedish Fas­cism and impe­ri­al­ism more effort­less­ly. But the oth­er rea­son that Lis­beth Salan­der is such a source of fas­ci­na­tion is this: the pint-size minx­oid with the drag­on tat­too is also a trau­ma­tized vic­tim and doesn’t work or play well with oth­ers. She has been raped and tor­tured and oth­er­wise abused ever since she could think, and her pri­vate phrase for her com­ing-of-age is “All the Evil”: words that go unelu­ci­dat­ed until near the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire. The actress Noo­mi Rapace has already played Salan­der in a Swedish film of the first nov­el, which enjoyed a world­wide release. (When Hol­ly­wood gets to the cast­ing stage, I sup­pose Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man will be offered the ursine Blomkvist role, and though the col­or­ing is wrong I keep think­ing of Winona Ryder for Lis­beth.) Accord­ing to Larsson’s father, the sym­pa­thy with which “the girl” is evoked is derived part­ly from the author’s own beloved niece, Therese, who is tat­tooed and has suf­fered from anorex­ia and dyslex­ia but can fix your com­put­er prob­lems.

In life, Stieg Lars­son described him­self as, among oth­er things, “a fem­i­nist,” and his char­ac­ter sur­ro­gate, Mikael Blomkvist, takes an osten­ta­tious­ly severe line against the male dom­i­na­tion of soci­ety and indeed of his own pro­fes­sion. (The orig­i­nal grim and Swedish title of The Girl with the Drag­on Tat­too is Men Who Hate Women, while the trilogy’s third book bore the more fairy-tale-like name The Cas­tle in the Air That Blew Up: the clever rebrand­ing of the series with the word “girl” on every cov­er was obvi­ous­ly crit­i­cal.) Blomkvist’s moral right­eous­ness comes in very use­ful for the action of the nov­els, because it allows the depic­tion of a great deal of cru­el­ty to women, smug­gled through cus­toms under the dis­guise of a strong dis­ap­proval. Swe­den used to be noto­ri­ous, in the late 1960s, as the home­land of the film I Am Curi­ous (Yel­low), which went all the way to the Supreme Court when dis­trib­uted in the Unit­ed States and gave Swe­den a world rep­u­ta­tion as a place of smil­ing nudi­ty and guilt-free sex. What a world of nurs­ery inno­cence that was, com­pared with the child slav­ery and exploita­tion that are evoked with per­haps slight­ly too much rel­ish by the cru­sad­ing Blomkvist.

His best excuse for his own pruri­ence is that these ser­i­al killers and tor­ture fanciers are prac­tic­ing a form of cap­i­tal­ism and that their rack­et is pro­tect­ed by a porno­graph­ic alliance with a form of Fas­cism, its low­er ranks made up of hideous bik­ers and meth run­ners. This is not just sex or crime—it’s pol­i­tics! Most of the time, Lars­son hauls him­self along with writ­ing such as this:

The mur­der inves­ti­ga­tion was like a bro­ken mosa­ic in which he could make out some pieces while oth­ers were sim­ply miss­ing. Some­where there was a pat­tern. He could sense it, but he could not fig­ure it out. Too many pieces were miss­ing.

No doubt they were, or there would be no book. (The plot of the first sto­ry is so heav­i­ly con­vo­lut­ed that it requires a page repro­duc­ing the Vanger dynasty’s fam­i­ly tree—the first time I can remem­ber encoun­ter­ing such a drama­tis per­son­ae since I read War and Peace.) But when he comes to the vil­lain of The Girl with the Drag­on Tat­too, a many-ten­ta­cled tycoon named Wen­ner­ström, Larsson’s prose is sud­den­ly much more spir­it­ed. Wen­ner­ström had con­se­crat­ed him­self to “fraud that was so exten­sive it was no longer mere­ly criminal—it was busi­ness.” That’s actu­al­ly one of the best-turned lines in the whole thou­sand pages. If it sounds a bit like Bertolt Brecht on an aver­age day, it’s because Larsson’s own views were old-shoe Com­mu­nist.

His back­ground involved the unique bond­ing that comes from tough Red fam­i­lies and sol­id class loy­al­ties. The hard-labor and fac­to­ry and min­ing sec­tor of Swe­den is in the far and ardu­ous North—this is also the home ter­ri­to­ry of most of the country’s storytellers—and Grand­pa was a pro­le­tar­i­an Com­mu­nist up toward the Arc­tic. This dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, when quite a few Swedes were vol­un­teer­ing to serve Hitler’s New Order and join the SS. In a note the 23-year-old Lars­son wrote before set­ting out for Africa, he bequeathed every­thing to the Com­mu­nist par­ty of his home­town, Umeå. The own­er­ship of the immense lat­er for­tune that he nev­er saw went by law to his father and broth­er, leav­ing his part­ner of 30 years, Eva Gabriels­son, with no legal claim, only a moral one that asserts she alone is fit to man­age Larsson’s very lucra­tive lega­cy. And this is not the only murk that hangs around his death, at the age of 50, in 2004.

To be exact, Stieg Lars­son died on Novem­ber 9, 2004, which I can’t help notic­ing was the anniver­sary of Kristall­nacht. Is it plau­si­ble that Sweden’s most pub­lic anti-Nazi just chanced to expire from nat­ur­al caus­es on such a date? Larsson’s mag­a­zine, Expo, which has a fair­ly clear fic­tion­al cous­in­hood with “Mil­len­ni­um,” was an unceas­ing annoy­ance to the extreme right. He him­self was the pub­lic fig­ure most iden­ti­fied with the unmask­ing of white-suprema­cist and neo-Nazi orga­ni­za­tions, many of them with a hard-earned rep­u­ta­tion for homi­ci­dal vio­lence. The Swedes are not the pacif­ic her­bi­vores that many peo­ple imag­ine: in the foot­notes to his sec­ond nov­el Lars­son reminds us that Prime Min­is­ter Olof Palme was gunned down in the street in 1986 and that the for­eign min­is­ter Anna Lindh was stabbed to death (in a Stock­holm depart­ment store) in 2003. The first crime is still unsolved, and the ver­dict in the sec­ond case has by no means sat­is­fied every­body.

A report in the main­stream news­pa­per Afton­bladet describes the find­ings of anoth­er anti-Nazi researcher, named Bosse Schön, who unrav­eled a plot to mur­der Stieg Lars­son that includ­ed a Swedish SS vet­er­an. Anoth­er scheme mis­fired because on the night in ques­tion, 20 years ago, he saw skin­heads with bats wait­ing out­side his office and left by the rear exit. Web sites are devot­ed to fur­ther spec­u­la­tion: one blog is pre­oc­cu­pied with the the­o­ry that Prime Min­is­ter Palme’s uncaught assas­sin was behind the death of Lars­son too. Larsson’s name and oth­er details were found when the Swedish police searched the apart­ment of a Fas­cist arrest­ed for a polit­i­cal mur­der. Larsson’s address, tele­phone num­ber, and pho­to­graph, along with threats to peo­ple iden­ti­fied as “ene­mies of the white race,” were pub­lished in a neo-Nazi mag­a­zine: the author­i­ties took it seri­ous­ly enough to pros­e­cute the edi­tor.

But Lars­son died of an appar­ent coro­nary throm­bo­sis, not from any may­hem. So he would have had to be poi­soned, say, or some­how med­ical­ly mur­dered. Such a hypoth­e­sis would point to some involve­ment “high up,” and any­one who has read the nov­els will know that in Larsson’s world the forces of law and order in Swe­den are fetid­ly com­plic­it with orga­nized crime. So did he wind up, in effect, a char­ac­ter in one of his own tales? The peo­ple who might have the most inter­est in keep­ing the spec­u­la­tion alive—his pub­lish­ers and publicists—choose not to believe it. “Six­ty cig­a­rettes a day, plus tremen­dous amounts of junk food and cof­fee and an enor­mous work­load,” said Christo­pher MacLe­hose, Larsson’s lit­er­ary dis­cov­er­er in Eng­lish and by a nice coin­ci­dence a pub­lish­er of Flash­man, “would be the cul­prit. I gath­er he’d even had a warn­ing heart mur­mur. Still, I have attend­ed demon­stra­tions by these Swedish right-wing thugs, and they are tru­ly fright­en­ing. I also know some­one with excel­lent con­tacts in the Swedish police and secu­ri­ty world who assures me that every­thing described in the ‘Mil­len­ni­um’ nov­els actu­al­ly took place. And, appar­ent­ly, Lars­son planned to write as many as 10 in all. So you can see how peo­ple could think that he might not have died but been ‘stopped.’”

He left behind him enough man­u­script pages for three books, the last of which—due out in the U.S. next summer—is enti­tled The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and the out­lines and ini­tial scrib­blings of a fourth. The mar­ket and appetite for them seems to be unap­peasable, as does the demand for Hen­ning Mankell’s “Detec­tive Wal­lan­der” thrillers, the work of Peter (Smilla’s Sense of Snow) Høeg, and the sto­ries of Arnal­dur Indri­da­son. These writ­ers come from coun­tries as diverse as Den­mark and Ice­land, but in Ger­many the genre already has a name: Schwe­denkri­mi, or “Swedish crime writ­ing.” Christo­pher MacLe­hose told me that he knows of book­stores that now have spe­cial sec­tions for the Scan­di­na­vian phe­nom­e­non. “When Roger Straus and I first pub­lished Peter Høeg,” he said, “we thought we were doing some­thing of a favor for Dan­ish lit­er­a­ture, and then ‘Miss Smil­la’ abrupt­ly sold a mil­lion copies in both Eng­land and Amer­i­ca. Look, in almost every­one there is a mem­o­ry of the sagas and the Norse myths. A lot of our sto­ry­telling got start­ed in those long, cold, dark nights.”

Per­haps. But Lars­son is very much of our own time, set­ting him­self to con­front ques­tions such as immi­gra­tion, “gen­der,” white-col­lar crime, and, above all, the Inter­net. The plot of his first vol­ume does involve a sort of excur­sion into antiquity—into the book of Leviti­cus, to be exact—but this is only for the pur­pose of encrypt­ing a “Bible code.” And he is quite delib­er­ate­ly unro­man­tic, giv­ing us shop­ping lists, street direc­tions, menus, and oth­er details—often with their Swedish names—in full. The vil­lains are evil, all right, but very stu­pid and self-thwart­ing­ly prone to spend more time (this always irri­tates me) telling their vic­tims what they will do to them than actu­al­ly doing it. There is much sex but absolute­ly no love, a great deal of vio­lence but zero hero­ism. Rec­i­p­ro­cal ges­tures are gen­er­al­ly indi­cat­ed by cliché: if a Lars­son char­ac­ter wants to show assent he or she will “nod”; if he or she wants to man­i­fest dis­tress, then it will usu­al­ly be by bit­ing the low­er lip. The pas­sion­ate world of the sagas and the myths is a very long way away. Bleak­ness is all. That could even be the secret—the emo­tion­less effi­cien­cy of Swedish tech­nol­o­gy, para­dox­i­cal­ly com­bined with the wicked allure of the piti­less elfin avenger, plus a dash of para­noia sur­round­ing the author’s demise. If Lars­son had died as a brave mar­tyr to a cause, it would have been strange­ly out of keep­ing; it’s actu­al­ly more sat­is­fy­ing that he suc­cumbed to the nat­ur­al caus­es that are symp­toms of mod­ern life.