The Legacy of the Dragon Tattoo

The stranger-than-fiction saga of Stieg Larsson's literary estate

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Eva Gabrielsson / Scanpix / Sipa Press

Stieg Larsson is seen relaxing on a sail yacht with a glass of his favorite whiskey Cragganmore during an overnight stop in the archipelago of Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1990's.

On Nov. 9, 2004, Stieg Larsson arrived at the Stockholm offices of Expo, the antifascist magazine he founded. The elevator was broken, so he had to climb seven flights of stairs instead. When he reached the top he collapsed. He was having a massive heart attack. He died before he reached the hospital.

It was a sudden, shocking death — but not a completely surprising one. Larsson was only 50, but he was a 20-Marlboro-Lights-a-day smoker with a legendary junk-food habit, and his family had a history of heart problems. The truly surprising part is what happened next.

Larsson had spent most of his life documenting the activities of fascist groups in Sweden, but at the time of his death he'd also written three unpublished crime novels, now known as the Millennium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. They went on to become best sellers, and then international best sellers, and then a global phenomenon that has generated a fortune in royalties.

But whose fortune? With Hornet's Nest set to be released in the U.S. on May 25, Larsson's legacy remains the focus of a protracted legal dispute between his family and his companion of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson. It's become a public soap opera in Sweden, with all the elements of a literary thriller: a star-crossed romance, a missing will, a house divided and a mysterious manuscript. It's the sort of story Larsson might have written — except for the ending, which is likely to be something out of Tolstoy, maybe, or Chekhov: sadder and less satisfying.

The Boy Who Died Too Soon
Larsson was born in 1954. His father and mother were shopworkers in Umea, a small city in northern Sweden. In 1972, when he was 18, Larsson went to a demonstration against the Vietnam War, where he met Gabrielsson, a fellow protester, also 18. Two years later they moved in together, and in 1977 they left Umea for Stockholm. Larsson signed on as a reporter with a news agency, and Gabrielsson began studying the history of architecture. They were still together 32 years later when he died.

But they never married. Larsson proposed in 1983, but shortly after their engagement he was hired as the Swedish correspondent for Searchlight, a British antiracist, antifascist magazine. From that point on he was forced to keep a low profile. Fascism is a live issue in Sweden, and fascist groups have been known to attack reporters who investigate them. But informational transparency is a point of national pride there too, and married couples must make their addresses public. To stay under the radar, the couple put off their wedding indefinitely.

His résumé notwithstanding, Larsson wasn't a humorless, steel-jawed crusader. By all accounts he was a man of large and joyful appetites who loved to drink and smoke and, above all, to talk. "He wasn't at all driven," says Graeme Atkinson, Searchlight's European editor, who knew Larsson for 20 years. "He was easygoing. His curiosity about things was just so immense."

In 2002, Larsson and Gabrielsson took a vacation on an island in the Stockholm archipelago. "Stieg had nothing to do," Gabrielsson told the Los Angeles Times in late 2009. "That's when he picked up a short story he had written about an old man selling flowers who gets murdered. And that became the first chapter of Millennium."

Over the next two years he wrote 2,000 pages, with Gabrielsson kibitzing and editing. Ultimately he hoped to run the series to 10 novels in all. A Swedish publisher offered him a three-book deal. Larsson delivered the manuscripts in a plastic shopping bag. Six months later, he was dead.

Life Imitates Art
The first hint of trouble arrived in early 2005, in the form of a big brown envelope from the Swedish government. It informed Gabrielsson that Larsson's entire estate, including half of their apartment and the rights to his books, had gone to Larsson's father Erland and younger brother Joakim. She had inherited nothing.

The government's position was simple. Larsson and Gabrielsson never married, and Sweden has no common-law marriage. Larsson had asked his publisher to help him draw up a will, but it was never executed. When Gabrielsson asked the Larssons for the rights to Stieg's novels, they declined — although they did offer her a share in them. Gabrielsson refused to discuss it: it was all or nothing. Standoff.

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