Rarely does a debut novel receive such praise. But when Swedish journalist and political activist Stieg Larsson’s book was published it became a global sensation.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first in his series of three crime thrillers known as the Millennium Trilogy. Its sequels, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, have been equally successful.
So far, 23million copies of his books have been bought, and last year Larsson was hailed as the world’s second bestselling author.
Even Hollywood is hoping to cash in on his success, with negotiations to option the film rights in their final stages.
The books’ appeal stems largely from the authenticity of its protagonists; Mikael Blomkvist, an anti-Establishment investigative journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, his fearless young sidekick whose brilliant computer-hacking skills add a modern edge to the traditional crime genre.
Together they fight corrupt authorities, prejudice and sexual violence against women. Underlying the complex, multi-faceted plot is a cautionary warning — unless we too fight these forces, our world will become engulfed by evil.
This was, at any rate, the view of Stieg Larsson who, until he became a novelist, had devoted his career to exposing corruption.
But he never knew he was to become one of the most successful writers of our time.
He suffered a heart attack when he was just 50 and died in November 2004 before his first novel was published.
His tragic death has unleashed a bitter drama every bit as compelling as that relayed in the Millennium Trilogy.
For 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson was Stieg’s soul mate, saving his life when those he exposed threatened to kill him before spurring him on to become a novelist.
But because they weren’t married and Larsson died without making a will, Eva has inherited neither his fortune — estimated at £20million and growing by the day — nor the rights to the books.
Instead, both have gone to Larsson’s father Erland and brother Joakim who, she says, were all but estranged from Stieg and shared none of his political beliefs.
They have refused to allow Eva any control over his estate, while dismissing her as difficult.
But Eva is not without negotiating power. She has in her possession the beginnings of a fourth book Larsson wrote; a property Stieg’s family has tried — unsuccessfully — to wrench from her.
And as the legal wranglings rumble on, Eva is determined to fight for her late partner’s wishes.
‘Stieg would be horrified,’ she says. ‘We were constantly collaborating and it is my brainchild as well. The only way I can explain the seriousness of it is that it is like someone selling your children, placing them in any old whorehouse for the rest of their lives.
‘It was never about money, but about common sense and upholding the quality of Stieg’s work. The family want the beginnings of the fourth book in the Millennium series that I have. It would be pointless to print it without finishing it, which I have offered to do if they give me the rights to his work.’
She says of Erland and Joakim: ‘I had no idea they had it in them to behave like this when money and power came along. Stieg really disliked his father. Stieg was afraid of nothing. His father and brother were totally different.
‘I don’t think they know what it is like to be in a close relationship. They blew the last 50 years and they still don’t get it.’
Eva, 55, speaks in soft, measured and slightly broken English. Yet no amount of composure can hide her anger and grief.
It was 1972 and Stieg and Eva were 18 when they met at a rally against the Vietnam War in their home town of Umea in northern Sweden. Her father, Anzar, was a journalist, her mother, Gudrun, a nurse.
Stieg’s parents, both shop workers, were only 19 when he was born. Unable to cope with parenthood, they handed him to his grandfather, Severin Bostrom, to bring up.
A staunch democrat, Severin had been imprisoned during the Second World War for his anti-Nazi views.
He died when his grandson was eight and Stieg went back to his parents.
Another horrific incident shaped his liberal beliefs. ‘When he was 14 he
witnessed his friends gang-rape a girl,’ says Eva. ‘He couldn’t stop it.’
Neither, she says, did he report it.
She can’t, or won’t, say why, but it is hard to imagine his failure to do so not haunting him throughout his adult life.
They moved to Stockholm in 1977. Stieg joined a news agency as a reporter while Eva became an architectural historian.
‘Stieg was solid, sure of himself and clear-cut. Our ideas coincided,’ says Eva.
In 1983, he proposed. They bought gold wedding rings and had their names engraved on the back.
Eva’s is now worn with age and embedded into the shape of her finger. ‘We were going to marry that autumn,’ she says.
But before they set a date, Stieg became the Scandinavian correspondent for the anti-fascist, anti-racist magazine Searchlight — and thus a high-profile target for Right-wing groups.
‘In Sweden, public records are easily available,’ says Eva. ‘Getting married would have made Stieg more traceable and been a huge mistake.’
Instead, they went to every effort to conceal both his whereabouts and Eva’s link to him, leaving little tangible trace of their life together at all.
It was her name on the door of their one-bedroom flat. They screened their calls, kept their bank accounts separate and carried personal protection sprays.
Undeterred, Stieg founded the anti-racist magazine Expo in 1995.
‘He was worried for my life and I was worried for him,’ she says. ‘But I was involved, too. I didn’t want to stop him. He was stubborn and determined.’
Yet violence towards Left-wing journalists escalated as Sweden became an increasingly capitalist society.
In 1999, after a fellow investigative journalist had a bomb placed under his car, shattering his spine, Stieg was tipped off that a Right-wing group was tracking his movements and he and Eva were given police protection.
She insists Stieg’s father remained largely indifferent to his work.
His mother, Evianne, had died in the early Nineties. ‘It was as if Erland was a distant relative, rather than his father,’ says Eva.
‘Stieg disliked him to the extent that I had no idea even when his brother got married or had children. None of his colleagues at Expo knew of his brother either.’
Erland, 74, and Joakim, 52, who still live in Umea, see the situation somewhat differently.
‘We could see Stieg’s talent and bought him a typewriter when he was 12,’ says Erland. ‘I’m very proud of him and we were close. We would see each other a couple of times a year.’
But Eva says it was out of a sense of duty rather than affection. She denies that Erland nurtured his son’s talent.
‘I didn’t see it and neither did anyone else,’ she says.
The rest of the family would appear as closeted as Stieg and Eva were liberal. ‘They were so afraid of everything. They wouldn’t even go anywhere that didn’t sell Swedish sausage,’ she says.
‘Stieg distanced himself from them, as he did with others who were different from him.’
It was 2002 before Stieg started writing the Millennium Trilogy. ‘In 1997 he’d written a short story about a man who receives an anonymous bunch of flowers every year on his birthday,’ says Eva.
‘I said, “why don’t you write about what happened to him?”‘
Over the next two years Stieg worked 14 hours a day, combining his job at Expo with writing the 2,000 pages of the Millennium Trilogy.
She says they considered having children, but in all probability, Stieg’s writing and their shared beliefs took the place of parenthood.
Eva cooked his meat stew and organic vegetables while they came up with ideas.
‘The characters were combinations of people in our lives,’ she says. ‘He would ask me to read and edit his manuscripts.
I suggested he take them to a publisher. But I didn’t know how huge it would be. Nobody did.’
In April 2004, he was offered a three-book publishing deal by the Swedish publisher Norstedts.
The publisher, it was decided, would also draw a will to decide what would
happen to Stieg’s estate in the event of his death. ‘He was hopeless at paperwork,’ she says.
But Stieg, who smoked 20 Marlboro Lights a day and had a history of heart failure in his family, suffered a heart attack that November.
Given the number of enemies he had, conspiracy theories surrounded his death.
Eva, who had pleaded with him to take better care of his health, dismisses them as ‘nonsense’.
She adds, softly: ‘I couldn’t believe he was gone. Every normal routine in my life was changed.
I still make stew for two and walk past a shop window and see a shirt I think he’ll look good in.’
She carried on living in their one-bedroom flat. ‘It made it easier,’ she says. ‘That way, I could say goodbye gradually.’
In January 2005, when she asked the publishers to see the will drawn up, Eva was told it had not yet been done.
Under Swedish law, Eva’s position as Stieg’s partner counts for nothing and his family automatically inherited his property and book rights.
‘The family took over,’ she says. ‘I literally didn’t hear from them for months.’
Eva is too diplomatic to say she felt anything other than ‘surprise’ at what she calls the ‘bad business’ decisions of the Larsson family.
Nor will she accuse them of telling blatant lies to undermine her role in Stieg’s life.
But her sister Britt, 57, a physiologist, says: ‘I saw a greedy side to Stieg’s brother. I think they were interested in the fame more than anything. I tried to get them to meet Eva and myself that summer, to sort out the will. But nothing was solved.’
Since then, they have communicated only through their lawyers.
Eva heard they had sold the film rights — the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg’s original title was the less commercially viable Men Who Hate Women) has taken more than £61million across Europe.
Later that year, the Larsson family offered Eva Stieg’s half of their flat in exchange for his laptop, which contains his valuable unfinished work.
‘My lawyer called it extortion,’ she says, adding: ‘I am proposing that I get the rights to manage the estate, so I can control the quality of the work. I am considering claiming
In 2008 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in Britain by MacLehose Press. The sequels followed in quick succession.
Eva is dismayed that Stieg’s original title was changed and claims the English language version has been ‘badly rewritten’.
She adds: ‘There is the Stieg that I know, and then the Millennium Stieg who developed after the books were published. Painful myths are being made up about him by people who knew him very little.
‘He has become a “crusading journalist”, which is a nice label but it’s not the point. Above all he was a feminist. But no one wants to talk about his feminism because of what happened to me.’
Certainly, a lesser woman would have been floored by the way both the law and the Larsson family have treated her.
Two years ago they relented and granted her full ownership of her flat but she is still facing financial ruin because of her legal fees. Yet she harbours no desire for Stieg’s fortune.
‘What can you do with all that money?’ she says. ‘It would be great to have some security for old age. But the rest, I would invest in work against the extreme Right-wing.’
Last November, the Larssons made a public offer of £1.75million to settle the dispute. ‘It’s been almost five years since Stieg died,’ Erland Larsson told a Swedish newspaper. ‘We have to move on.’
He told The Mail on Sunday last week: ‘We have offered Eva money, which she doesn’t want. We don’t think she is qualified to manage the rights to the books. Eva won’t talk to us because we won’t do exactly as she wants us to. We have become the enemy but what else can we do? We are trapped.’
All Eva really wants is the legacy of the man she loved to live on.
‘Stieg was a good man who lived by the morals of the books he wrote,’ she says.
Hopefully, when his fortune and the bitter family feud are finally settled, that will be the one aspect of the sorry saga that both sides can agree on.