Stieg Larsson: the man who loved women

Sep 30, 2009
Katharine Hibbert

A terrible injustice hangs over the publication of Stieg Larsson's final book

The release tomorrow of the third and final novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, will be a publishing event on a par with a new Dan Brown or JK Rowling. Yet neither of those authors can touch Larsson for political credibility and real-life intrigue – nor, many would argue, for literary and storytelling skills.

Sales of the Swede's intelligent, complex thrillers, which centre on the dynamic partnership of a middle-aged investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, and an angry punk computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, have already topped 15m worldwide. An overnight queue round the block is guaranteed at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, which will open an hour early on Thursday - 8am - to deal with the rush.

One reason is that Larsson's devoted readers were left hanging at the end of volume two - The Girl Who Played With Fire - when it was published in Britain earlier this year. The tens of thousands who have read that and the first volume, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, are itching to know what happens to Lisbeth Salander next.

Because he was afraid Eva might be assassinated, Larsson never married her

But there is more to Larsson than gripping plots and scintillating sales forecasts. A former magazine journalist before he turned to fiction in 1997, his feminist and anti-fascist credentials are impeccable. As his partner Eva Gabrielsson told an awards ceremony last week, the Millennium trilogy represented "a new way of making discrimination and violence against women visible".

Larsson began his writing career as the Scandinavian correspondent for the anti-fascist, anti-racist magazine Searchlight. In 1995, after a wave of neo-Nazi attacks in Sweden, he helped start the Expo Foundation, which aimed to counter the rise of the extreme right. This involved him editing Expo magazine, at great personal risk.

When he decided to try writing a novel, it was with the very serious intent of continuing his campaigning work, especially against the abuse of women and the rise of neo-fascism. In another journalist's hands, this might have made for hellish reading. Larsson's genius is that he brought his campaigning zeal to the page without any hint of do-goodery, and with the skills of a great storyteller.

In the first novel, his spunky heroine Salander helps Blomkvist - who writes for the fictional Millennium magazine - expose a Swedish industrialist with a hatred of women. Salander's eagerness is explained when the reader learns that she herself has a history of abuse, having been committed as a child to a mental institution by sinister forces within the Swedish security services.

As the Sunday Times critic Joan Smith put it last weekend, "the three novels taken together are a cry of rage against the sexual abuse of women and girls."

Sadly Larsson, a 60-a-day smoker and workaholic, did not live to enjoy the recognition or wealth his work has earned, dying in 2004 at the age of 50. He had found a publisher for his trilogy before he died - he suffered a heart attack after climbing seven flights of stairs when his office lift broke down - but never saw any of the novels printed, bound and flying off the shelves from Stockholm to San Francisco.

Last week, Gabrielsson, his partner ever since they met at 18, went to Madrid to collect on Larsson's behalf a posthumous award from the Spanish Government. It was not a literary prize, of which there doubtless would been many had he lived longer, but an award for his selfless campaign against domestic and gender violence, in his fiction and his life.

Gabrielsson, who described Larsson as "my life-long partner, lover and best friend", praised his determination to fight sexist oppression, whether Sicilian honour killings, the burning of widows in India, or the battering of wives and girlfriends on boozy Saturdays nights in Sweden.

"When I met Stieg Larsson in 1972 he defined himself as a feminist," said Gabrielsson. "This was unusual. He saw the situation of women at an early age and never stopped seeing it.

"Stieg Larsson's actions, and his views of the world, can mainly be understood from a perspective of women's rights."

She concluded her speech by referring to him as "the man who loved women", neatly inverting the title of the first book in the trilogy, published in English as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but known in Sweden and most of Europe as The Man Who Hates Women.

Tragically, it was Larsson's love for Gabrielsson that led to the terrible injustice of which she now finds herself a victim.

Larsson made one mistake – he never wrote a will

Larsson's journalism had brought him many death threats down the years. As a result, he and Eva were said to be extraordinarily vigilant when they went out in public: according to a recent Sunday Times report, if they met up in a restaurant or bar they would arrange things so that each was looking at the opposite door.

Gabrielsson has revealed that because he was afraid she might be assassinated, he never married her – for the simply reason that, in Sweden, married couples must make their address public. The risk was too great, he felt.

But Larsson made one mistake - he never wrote a will. If he and Eva had married, this would not have been a problem - Eva would doubtless have inherited his £11m (and rising) estate. But under Swedish law, as in Britain, a woman who has co-habited with her partner - even for 30 years - has no such rights if her partner dies intestate.

As a result, his fortune passed to his father and brother, from whom he had allegedly been estranged. Gabrielsson, an architectural historian who had supported Larsson during impoverished phases of his career, and helped him with research on the Millennium trilogy, was left with nothing.

Larsson's family also inherited half of the couple's Stockholm flat. In 2005 they offered it to Gabrielsson in exchange for Larsson's laptop computer, which she claimed contained an unfinished fourth novel. "My legal adviser called it extortion," she said. "I refused to hand over the computer."

A website,, is raising donations for her campaign to change the inheritance law so that common law spouses are recognised. The site recommends donating £2 if you are annoyed by the injustice, £5 if you're upset and £10 if you're furious.

Larsson would no doubt have approved, though Lisbeth Salander might advise Gabrielsson to kick her enemies in the head or shoot them in the foot.

'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' is published by MacLehose Press, October 1

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