The world knows of Stieg Larsson through his immensely successful Millennium trilogy, a work that became a blockbuster in every sense of the word upon its release in the middle of the previous decade. Translated into dozens of languages around the world and the subject of numerous adaptations for television and film, the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander has resonated with reading audiences in a way that few detective thrillers have, perhaps even since the glory days of the big American crime novelists of the 1930s and 1940s.
All the more tragic, then, that Larsson never got to enjoy the fruits of his labors. He died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack ten years ago this month, even as his trilogy — completed over several years during his free time — was gathering steam internationally in preparation for publication of the first volume. (And, perhaps, a loss for us as well, as he had told his publisher that he planned to write several more books in the series.)
One thing that struck his original Swedish publishers as they read the three completed manuscripts was the maturity of his writing talent. This absolute unknown in the literary world had, they felt, “managed to keep a nearly encyclopedic intrigue together” through not one, but three genres: a mystery, a police novel, and a spy thriller. It is no mean feat, even for an accomplished writer–but then again, that is exactly what Stieg Larsson was. ThoughMillennium was his breakthrough in the world of fiction, Larsson had decades of experience in investigative journalism and reporting behind him when he first sat down to write it.
Stieg Larsson, as is widely known, was a tireless antifascist activist, devoting his time and energy to shining light into the organizations and activities of the Swedish neo-Nazi movement through the magazine Expo. What might be less widely known, however, is that this was the culmination of a career in reporting and activism stretching back in time to the war in Vietnam and across the globe to places like Eritrea. It is only fitting, on the anniversary of his death, to bring a little more of Larsson’s life to light, placing his work both in that context and in the context of the genre of the crime novel in general. (In writing this article I have been aided greatly by Jan-Erik Petterson’s biography of Larsson, originally published in Swedish but available in English as either “Stieg Larsson: From Activist to Author” or “The Real Story of the Man who Played with Fire”. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who perhaps hasn’t read the trilogy yet, or before re-reading them.)
Larsson’s political activism began early in life, while growing up in the far north of Sweden: by 1970, when he was just sixteen, he was already a veteran of the local antiwar movement around Vietnam. It was around this time that he first became attracted to Trotskyism and the Socialist Party in Sweden (Petterson argues that he was critical both of his communist grandfather’s pro-Moscow attitude and his parents’ Social-Democratic reformism) – an approach that served him well during his obligatory military service when he devoted his time to distributing theRed Soldier newspaper and raising union-style demands, including one for a thousand-crown demobilization bonus for which Red Soldier published an article agitating for a mass sick-out.
The internationalist emphasis in Trotskyism combined with the prevailing mood of support for the Third World among European youth at the time and Larsson’s own interest in world events (fed in part by a teenage interest in listening to shortwave radio) to lead him to decide to travel to Eritrea in 1977. At the time, Eritrea was struggling for independence against Ethiopia (run at the time by the military dictator Mengistu). It is not difficult to see how Larsson might have drawn parallels between the Eritrean war and the war in Vietnam, especially since Ethiopia was then receiving aid from the Soviet Union. During his time there he was interrogated in Addis Ababa by officials of the British embassy about what he’d seen (he refused to answer their questions) and traveled to the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where his military knowledge from his service days was put to use teaching women guerilla fighters how to shoot grenade launchers.
After his eventual return from Africa, Larsson got a job at Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT), the Swedish news agency. He turned his short-term job compiling sports results into a temporary position and ultimately permanent employment as a graphics designer for the news. It was a job he would hold for the next twenty years.
For part of that time, in the early 1980s, he continued his membership in the Socialist Party and continued writing articles for their newspaper, Internationalen, on a diverse range of subjects. One of his major assignments was a visit to the island of Grenada for study and solidarity purposes, to see up close the results of the New Jewel Movement’s 1979 revolution. He remained closely connected to events on the island through the Sweden–Grenada Friendship Association he helped set up; it was these connections that enabled him to write in great detail about the subsequent collapse of the revolution, the 1983 coup under Bernard Coard, and the invasion by the United States six days later in a way that the mainstream Swedish media was unable to. (Anyone who has read The Girl who Played with Fire will probably have gotten a jolt of recognition by now; we’ll come back to this in a bit.)
It was around this time that TT expanded its operations to include producing feature articles; the head of the department, Kenneth Ahlborn, saw that Larsson was “a person full of ideas” and encouraged him to write. He started out with articles on such subjects as debunking the pseudoscience of New Age spiritualism and interviews with authors of detective and crime novels–a childhood interest, common to many people his age, which he never let go of. It was an interest that Ahlborn shared; on one occasion they discussed what might have happened to the heroes of their childhood favorites once they had grown up. Larsson thought that Pippi Longstocking would have a hard time of it in her twenties: unable to conform to modern society, involuntarily institutionalized and possibly subjected to mental and physical violation, coming out of it all deeply bitter and bent on revenge.
In addition, by the mid-1980s Larsson had begun writing as an international correspondent for the British antifascist magazine Searchlight, an experience that provided him with the invaluable insight into and knowledge of investigative journalism and the European far right he would later need to successfully launch and edit Expo in Sweden.
Larsson’s journalism was already high-caliber, as his coverage of the events in Grenada demonstrated, but his work with Expo took him to an entirely different level. As Petterson writes, his ambition was not just to document and expose the otherwise hidden doings of Swedish far-right groups (which he was able to do with the help of disaffected members acting as moles), but to collaborate internationally with other antifascist publications and build a collection of materials that could be used for academic research, thereby giving Expo expert status in its field.
From here, it is very easy to see how Larsson’s practical experiences in journalism and radical political activism impacted his writing in the Millennium trilogy. Each of the volumes is packed full of background information that at first glance seems rather unnecessary; as with his journalism, where he painstakingly assembled all the little details in order for his readers to better see the big picture, these asides (like the history and geography of Hedeby in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) actually contribute to a deeper understanding the world he has built for Mikael and Lisbeth. This deeper understanding in turn makes the world of Millennium that much more real to readers, and thus more believable. (Larsson himself, it seems, was not unaware of the impression he would make with this approach; towards the end of The Girl who Played with Fire he has Mikael Blomkvist chide another character, saying his explanation “was starting to sound like a history lesson”.)
Larsson’s decades of radical political activism also left their distinct mark on the trilogy, but in order to discuss this properly we need to take a step back and look at the genre of crime and detective fiction as a whole, and Swedish crime fiction in particular.
Petterson writes that at heart, the classic detective novel deals with an order that is disrupted and restored–the good triumph over the threats from people among the lower ranks of society, generally by dint of their intellectual and deductive abilities rather than brute force. This was the world view of the detective novels translated from the English that formed the bulk of the detective novels Swedes read in the first half of the twentieth century; in the postwar era, when the first Swedish authors began publishing their own detective novels, they continued in that tradition and left social criticism to other literary fields and authors (such as Vilhelm Moberg, most famous for his series of novels about Swedish immigrants to the United States but who spent more time writing and lecturing about the corruption he felt permeated Swedish society in the 1950s).
At the same time, reading among the lower social classes in Sweden was on the rise–but active campaigns against what was deemed “pornography” kept detective novels in the background. The youth wing of the Social Democrats had been campaigning along these lines since 1907, and during the Second World War major Swedish publishers competed with similar lines of inexpensive popular literature–realistic novels by well-known authors, often with connections to the labor movement.
This all was turned on its head with the 1965 release of Roseanna, the first detective novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, two authors who like Larsson after them were politically active and stood well to the left of Swedish social democracy. Their ten-novel series, published over the coming decade under the general title A Novel about a Crime, introduced the police procedural to Swedish crime fiction and would put the genre back on the map with a strong inclination towards the left. Their work paved the way for authors like Jan Guillou and his Hamilton novels, and Henning Mankell (who, like Larsson, used his personal experiences to inform his writing) with his Kurt Wallander series.
Without this background, it would arguably have been very difficult for Larsson to completely subvert the well-established tropes of the genre and make it believable. The threats to Lisbeth Salander’s life come not from below but from above, from the ranks of a shadow Swedish government bent on protecting themselves from the consequences of their own actions. Justice is served, but it is the justice of Lisbeth finally being freed from her psychological prison rather than justice designed to preserve the smooth running of the system (which, in fact, is about to be shaken to its foundations at the end of the third novel, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest).
The times in which Millennium was published also lent the books an air of credibility, as governments around the world increased their own shadow operations against their own populations in the wake of the September 11thattacks and the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Seeing a government potentially scandalized to the point of dissolution was almost certainly welcome in a time when real-world governments were becoming increasingly powerful and increasingly unaccountable.
Stieg Larsson’s contributions to popular literature and the fight against fascism are both unique and impossible to underestimate. Neither, however, could have come into being without his commitment to radical politics and the vision of a more just world where the things he wrote about would no longer be possible. Though his work withExpo was more openly directed at giving people the knowledge and understanding to organize and to act, I think the Millennium trilogy attempts to do the same thing. Through the understanding he provides of Mikael Blomkvist’s and Lisbeth Salander’s world, Larsson is trying to get us not only to be glad of Lisbeth’s victory over her oppressors, but to be angry that such things could happen to someone in the first place, to question why something like this can and does happen – and, ultimately, to ask ourselves what we can do to change that. It’s literature we should definitely enjoy, but it’s also literature we’re supposed get something bigger out of. That’s not something a great deal of crime fiction even attempts, let alone accomplishes.
- Petterson, Jan-Erik. Stieg Larsson: Journalisten, författaren, idealisten. Stockholm: Telegram bokförlag, 2010, p. 213. The quote above is translated from the Swedish.
- This episode in Larsson’s life became the subject of criticism from the Swedish National Socialist Front in 2009, when Expo received the Dawit Isaak prize (named for an Eritrean journalist jailed by the Afewerki regime running the country). The NSF blamed Larsson for helping to build the army that took power in Eritrea after independence in 1993 and that jailed Isaak. Petterson writes: “Saying that in 1977, Stieg Larsson could have predicted the actions of the Eritrean liberation movement and of Afewerki twenty years later is a somewhat bizarre viewpoint. He could naturally have done so no more than the many Eritreans who were previously members in or supported the liberation movement but who have now been imprisoned or gone into exile” (Petterson, p. 46).
- Petterson, p. 60.
Jeff Skinner is a translator and independent political activist living in Stockholm, Sweden.