The girl with the universal appeal

The tattooed and ruthless Lisbeth Salander powers a Swedish writer’s bestselling trilogy

The girl with the universal appealLisbeth Salander, one of the coolest if most disturbing fictional crime fighters of recent years, was to have been the Watson to investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist’s Holmes in Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s scarifying Millennium trilogy. But, as strong secondary characters often do, she so dominated the story in the first novel that English-language publishers changed its title. The original title, Men Who Hate Women, may have captured one of Larsson’s key themes, but The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo rightly took note of Lisbeth’s star power. And she moves even more to the forefront of the hugely popular series in the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire (to be released in August), when Lisbeth—a tattooed, pierced, brilliant, angry, Aspergerian and utterly ruthless computer hacker—is framed for the murders of two reporters.

The trilogy opens with Blomkvist facing the consequences of a mistake that threatens his career and his reputation. Convicted of libel against a corrupt businessman, he has little choice but to accept an assignment from another tycoon, Henrik Vanger. Four decades earlier, in a classic Agatha Christie situation—Larsson, a well-read fan of English-language mysteries, peppers his trilogy with homages to icons of the genre—the Vanger family was gathered on an island temporarily sealed off from the mainland when Vanger’s great-niece Harriet vanished. Now he wants Blomkvist to uncover the truth about that day. Together with Salander, Blomkvist uncovers a litany of abuse, suppressed truth and murder.

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Yet the storyline, absorbing as it is, is only one factor fuelling the posthumous phenomenon of Stieg Larsson, a crusading, pretty much penniless, left-wing Swedish journalist who died of a massive heart attack at age 50 in 2004. Since then his trilogy has swept Europe, where all three novels have appeared (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest won’t be published in North America until 2010), selling 12 million copies. The one book so far released here has done exceptionally well too, including a Dan Brown-level stay (38 weeks) on the Maclean’s bestseller list. There’s now a hit Swedish movie version of Dragon Tattoo, and a French book about the author’s life, made all the more enticing by the rumours of foul play that inevitably followed the sudden death of a man who saw sinister, usually corporate, forces at work behind the scenes, and who also campaigned against violent racist groups. But most of his friends accept his death—Larsson, a workaholic chain-smoker, suffered his coronary after walking up six flights to his Stockholm apartment on a day the elevator wasn’t operating—as a natural tragedy.

Larsson’s afterlife now excites more interest than his death. The journalist’s estate has grown to more than $20 million and, since his 1977 will leaving everything to the Communist Workers League was ruled invalid because it was unwitnessed, it’s become a controversy in itself. Swedish law, to the surprise of foreigners, does not recognize the inheritance rights of common-law spouses. That means Eva Gabrielsson, the architectural historian who lived with, and often supported, Larsson for 32 years, has inherited nothing. Instead, the money has gone to Erland Larsson, Stieg’s father, and Joakim Larsson, his brother. The writer, according to Gabrielsson, was estranged from both.

In what’s become a long-running soap opera, Gabrielsson, 54, has Swedish public opinion firmly on her side. The Larsson family inherited not only the literary windfall, but half the apartment the couple shared. Worse, they’ve offered to exchange their half for Larsson’s laptop—home to a 200-page manuscript, an unfinished sequel to the trilogy. “My legal adviser called it extortion,” Gabrielsson told a British newspaper. “I refused to hand it over.” Gabrielsson, who helped research the trilogy, is coy about whether she might finish the sequel, the object of wild speculation in Europe—the French book about Larsson is entitled The Mystery of the Fourth Manuscript. “It would be as difficult as trying to finish a painting by Picasso,” she said.

For their part, the Larssons claimed Gabrielsson is “blocked in her anger” and ignoring their requests to take part in important decisions. “We are inundated with requests for permission to make plays and cartoon strips out of Millennium,” their statement read. “Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt would like to buy the rights for a remake of the film. We want her opinion.” Lisbeth’s millions of fans await Gabrielsson’s decision.

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