Sweden Makes a Killing

Every Saturday afternoon, a tour group gathers outside Fiskargatan 9 on the island of Södermalm in Stockholm. Sometimes the guide speaks Swedish, sometimes English, sometimes French. The crowd peers up toward the 350-square-foot top-floor apartment where detective Lisbeth Salander lives—even though they know they'll never catch a glimpse of her. The antisocial, omnisexual elf who computer-hacks her way to the dark heart of smug and cozy Sweden lives only in the pages of crime novels.

When journalist Stieg Larsson created her as the heroine of his Millennium series, he knew he had a hit on his hands. After delivering the first manuscript, The Man Who Hated Women, in early 2004, he immediately got a three-book contract and a huge advance from the Swedish publisher Norstedts—unheard of for a first-time author. The frantic bidding war for foreign rights at the 2004 Frankfurt book fair confirmed that Millennium would indeed provide the "retirement fund" Larsson said he wrote it to be. But in November 2004, at the age of 50, and before the first book was even published, Larsson died of a heart attack.

Since then, millions of readers from Albania to Vietnam have been seduced by Salander's neurotic intelligence, to the point of wanting to visit the real address where the fictitious character lives and works. "We've got 15 guides now, and I'm hiring more all the time," says Philippa Norman, program and event coordinator for the Stockholm City Museum, which has been running the Millennium tour for nearly a year. She came up with the idea after seeing crowds gathering on the street nearby to look at, well, nothing. "Every tour I add sells out," she says. The Stockholm Visitors Board is counting on the Millennium effect to measurably bolster tourism to the country.

In Sweden, a country of some 9 million people, the three Millennium books have sold around 3 million copies all together, meaning it's hard to find a Swede who hasn't read at least one of them. So far, publishers in 40 countries have bought the rights; approximately 15 million copies have sold worldwide, according to Norstedts. In the U.S., the trilogy's second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is due out in July. The first volume, published by Knopf last September under the less inflammatory title The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has sold 225,000 hardback copies, and a Vintage paperback is scheduled for this summer. But sales momentum typically accelerates after the second volume hits. Global sales will get another boost this fall, when Russia and China come onboard. And screen adaptations are heightening the hype; the first Millennium movie, which opened earlier this year, is currently slaying box-office records across Europe (its U.S. release has not yet been scheduled). When it opened in Spain in May, it promptly stole the No. 1 spot from the Tom Hanks thriller Angels and Demons. "For a Swedish movie, that's simply never happened before," says the film's producer, Søren Stærmose.

Salander's character drives the trilogy forward, and she's not like any other crimefighter in literature. Larsson started with one of his favorite kids'-book characters, Pippi Longstocking, and put her through a meat grinder of institutional abuse. What came out is an anorexic Lara Croft who out-thinks everybody, trusts nobody, and follows her own funky moral compass. You can't help but love her, even when she's kicking you in the nuts. "She became like a third person in our house," says Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, who met him at an anti–Vietnam War rally in 1972 and lived with him until he died. "Stieg would be up all night writing, and when I woke up he would say, 'You wouldn't believe what Salander just did!' It was like a menage à trois."

The only person in the books who doesn't underestimate Salander is Mikael Blomkvist, the do-good journalist who bears no small resemblance to Larsson himself. Blomkvist creates Millennium magazine to take on targets that squeamish mainstream journalists won't touch, much like Larsson founded Expo magazine in the mid-'90s to shine a lonely light on neo-Nazis, skinheads, and the extreme right in general. Larsson regularly received death threats for his troubles. As a result, he was widely admired in Sweden, and rarely had two kronor to rub together.

Larsson grew up in a town called Umea in the country's nothing-to-do north. What he did was write, constantly; the family moved young Stieg to a basement room to insulate the neighbors from the incessant clacking of his typewriter. Born to teenage parents, Stieg spent much of his childhood in the care of his maternal grandfather, a diehard Stalinist who had been interned with other communists during World War II. By the time he left home in his late teens, Larsson's avocation and his idealism were both fixed.

Larsson and Gabrielsson, an architect, lived the life of intellectuals. They were both omnivorous readers. Among the many pleasures of the Millennium series are the knowing details that provide a bread-crumb trail to Larsson's enthusiasms: computers, politics, Grenada, and on and on. "He just had to know how the puzzle fit together, whether it was crime novels, the Internet, or politics," recalls Gabrielsson, her eyes filling up. "Every day, it was, 'Guess what I learned today?' "

One thing that held no interest for Larsson was food. None of the characters in Millenium ever has what could be called a decent meal, and apparently the author didn't either. He didn't drink much, but he lived on takeout pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, coffee, and cigarettes. He died an American death. "He knew that he couldn't keep living this way—that's why he wrote the books, as a kind of insurance policy," says Daniel Poohl, now editor of Larsson's Expo magazine. "He kept meaning to kick back when he got rich."

It wasn't Larsson who got rich, and now it doesn't appear likely that Gabrielsson will, either. The two had no children and never married, and the author left no will; Gabrielsson says the couple's paper lives were kept separate so none of Stieg's enemies could link her to him. Larsson's entire estate—about €24 million and counting—went to his father, Erland, and his brother, Joakim, who both still live an Ikea lifestyle in Umea. The two created an annual Stieg Larsson prize of €20,000 for any person or organization that combats right-wing extremism and granted the first one to Expo. The rest of the money just sits there.

Gabrielsson says that as Larsson's common-law spouse, she should have a legal right to the estate, and has been fighting to change Sweden's law to that effect. There is no communication between her and Larsson's family, but the father and brother have told neutral parties that they are open to talking about giving her a share. Gabrielsson says she's interested in justice, not money. All of Scandinavia has taken sides; depending on who you talk to, Gabrielsson has either been screwed out of what's rightfully hers, or she's been incredibly stubborn and uncompromising. She's currently writing her own book, The Year After Stieg, in which she will undoubtedly supply an earful. "I could shut up but I would be ashamed," says Gabrielsson. "Stieg used to ask me why I always had to take the narrow, twisty road instead of the highway."

One not unimportant footnote: Larsson left behind almost 300 pages of a fourth manuscript. Erland and Joakim Larsson own the rights and believe it should never see print, but Gabrielsson's got the hard copy. She said the Larssons agreed to let her stay in the apartment she shared with Stieg if she turned over his laptop—which she has so far refused to do. She remains in her home, with the laptop.

The Millennium series follows in a long and grumpy tradition of crime writing in Scandinavia, and particularly Sweden. "I thought the whole Nordic crime phenomenon was dying out, and then along comes Stieg Larsson," says Håkan Nesser, who's been writing Swedish crime novels since 1993. Unlike American private dicks, who serve up snappy, cynical repartee, or English supersleuths who deploy dazzling puzzle-solving skills, the stereotypical Scandinavian shamus broods on the futility of fighting crime at all and the deeper ills that make society the real bad guy. He drinks, gets divorced, refuses to shave. The husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö created the mold with their grim Martin Beck novels in the '60s and '70s, and it's been downhill from there.

Henning Mankell, creator of small-town inspector Kurt Wallander, was Sweden's reigning king of crime before Larsson. As played by Kenneth Branagh in a three-episode BBC series, Wallander is a stubbly, jowly mess. "You're supposed to be depressed and suicidal," says Nesser, whose own inspector Van Veeteren fits right into the Nordic groove—a "classic, not very sympathetic guy." In Woman With Birthmark, recently published in the U.S. and the U.K., Van Veeteren takes on a female serial killer whose victims did a very bad thing to her mother years before. It's no accident that readers can't decide who to root for.

Larsson's three tales, if not their heroine, adhere to the unwritten codes of Viking crime. Whoever the particular perps in Millennium turn out to be, the real villains are all "isms"—Nazism, sexism, racism. They lurk within the computer hard drives of Sweden's comfy elite like some kind of virtual unconscious. But there's no firewall that can protect anyone's nasty secrets from Lisbeth Salander.

Thanks to Larsson, the global publishing door is suddenly wide open to Swedish crime writers. Liza Marklund, a bestseller in Scandinavia, is currently writing a book with U.S. crime behemoth James Patterson. Swedish criminal-defense-lawyer-turned-novelist Jens Lapidus won notice in 2006 with Snabba Cash (Easy Money), which Pantheon will publish in the U.S. next summer. Jo Nesbø, who hails from neighboring Norway, is touted as another up-and-comer with his Harry Hole detective series. "It's a lot easier for me to get publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. to pick up the phone these days," says Norstedts' Eva Gedin. "Everyone is looking for the next Stieg Larsson." Nesser, for one, isn't getting too excited. "Twenty years ago, we had a lot of great tennis players; now we've got none," he says. "For the past five years, it's been crime writers. This will pass." How very Swedish.