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.

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The irony here, or one of the ironies, is that embattled, disenfranchised women are Larsson's fictional specialty. His books have two heroes. One is Mikael Blomkvist, a Larssonesque journalist, middle-aged and unmarried, like Tintin grown up and gone to seed. The other hero, and the series' salvation, is Lisbeth Salander, a young computer genius whose abusive childhood has left her a misanthropic nihilist.

Larsson's writing has a slightly robotic affectlessness — conveyed in part by his, or his translator's, apparent lack of interest in contractions — but Salander burns through the Nordic languor with her electric rage, her incandescent cleverness, her principled refusal of all emotional ties and her determination to think the worst of everybody. Much of the pleasure of reading Larsson lies in getting righteously angry on Salander's behalf.

Joakim and Erland Larsson hasten to point out that Gabrielsson wasn't cut off completely, but under the circumstances their generosity doesn't play particularly sympathetically. "When Stieg died, he had a little bit of money" — about $20,000, says Joakim. "We gave Eva that money. If you take away the books, Eva got more money when Stieg died than if they were married."

It isn't much when you look at the outlandish scale of the books' success. They've sold 3.5 million copies in Sweden alone, all the more impressive when you consider that Sweden has only about 9 million people. They were the three top-selling novels in Germany last year. They've outsold Harry Potter in France. The first two have sold 4 million copies in the U.S. The Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the most successful release in Europe last year, and a Hollywood remake is in the works, with the role of Blomkvist reportedly offered to Brad Pitt. The Larssons say Stieg's estate is worth $15 million, although that is a very low estimate based on the many millions of books sold, not to mention the movie rights.

It's not all about money. Each side has accused the other of being incompetent in managing Larsson's legacy, and the extent of Gabrielsson's contributions to the books has also been debated. But the most hotly contested point is the nature of Larsson's relationship with his family. Gabrielsson's tale is that of a man all but estranged from his brother and father, who as soon as he was dead swooped down to loot the corpse. "I had no idea they had it in them to behave like this when money and power came along," Gabrielsson told the Daily Mail in January. "Stieg really disliked his father ... They blew the last 50 years and they still don't get it." But the Larssons tell a very different story. "I loved him very much," says Joakim. "He was a sort of hero for me. My father would speak to him once or twice a week on the phone."

Gabrielsson has little legal ammunition in this fight. Her only points of leverage are public opinion — a fan has set up a website, SupportEva.com to raise money for her — and Larsson's old laptop, which is still in her possession. On its hard drive are 200 pages of an unfinished fourth Millennium novel, which the Larssons, and most of the rest of the literate world, would love to get their hands on. In a bizarre negotiating gambit, the Larssons offered to trade her their half of the apartment for the manuscript. Gabrielsson declined.

The Larssons have made concessions. Two years ago they caved on the apartment, where Gabrielsson still lives, and last November they offered her $2.6 million to settle the matter once and for all. "I don't have a dispute with her," Joakim says. "She does with us. We want her to have a good life. If we can help her with that, then we will do it."

Gabrielsson declined again, but the conversation isn't over. "We've met a few times and discussed some issues," says Sara Pers-Krause, Gabrielsson's lawyer. "We will probably go on doing that as long as we think it's worthwhile."

Fans hungry for the missing Millennium novels have seized on the legal drama surrounding them as a substitute. But it's a poor one: if Larsson were writing the story, Gabrielsson would emerge from the fray in a satisfying blaze of vindication, re-enfranchised by some yet undreamt-of legal wrinkle or computer hackery. But the reality will probably be slower and messier, and it's unlikely to leave anybody completely satisfied. It's a strange afterlife for a man who never cared much about money. "If he saw his pictures around the world's airports and underground stations," says Atkinson, "he would have given his characteristic response: a rather wry and slightly mischievous smile." —Reported by Carla Power / London

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