The Man Who Launched a Blockbuster

Previously unpublished emails show how Stieg Larsson set out to defy the conventions of the crime novel

Stieg Larsson did not live to see the enormous success of his Millennium trilogy, which has now sold over 46 million copies world-wide. But a new book, “On Stieg Larsson,” offers a window into the creative process behind the series of thrillers, which revolve around the antisocial computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

“On Stieg Larsson,” which is part of the Millennium Trilogy Deluxe Boxed Set to be released on Nov. 26, includes four essays about the author, as well as an exchange of emails between him and his book editor, Eva Gedin, as they finished up the series. Below are two emails sent by Mr. Larsson in 2004, with his thoughts on the development of the books. On Nov. 9, soon after the last of these emails, Mr. Larsson—who was also the editor of Expo, an anti-racism magazine, in Sweden—died suddenly at the age of 50 after having a heart attack at his office. His first book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was published in Sweden in 2005.

Stieg Larsson on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1987, on assignment for a Swedish news agency. His Millennium trilogy has now sold over 46 million copies.

Friday, April 30, 9:44 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

I’ve just realized that it’s Walpurgis Night [a traditional spring festival celebrated in northern Europe]. I had forgotten all about it. The young are muttering away and cannot wait to go home or go out for a few beers, and I’ve promised to let them loose after nine. Poor old Daniel Poohl—he’s our assistant editor-in-chief and has been sleeping in the office for a couple of weeks now. They’re going on about setting up a branch of the trade union. Hmm.

You’ll get book III as soon as I’ve tied up a few loose ends. I’m looking forward to meeting Elin [Sennero, a copy editor]. I am not altogether confident of my ability to put my thoughts into words: My texts are usually better after an editor has hacked away at them, and I am used to both editing and being edited. Which is to say that I am not oversensitive in such matters. Sometimes we will disagree about matters of fact, and like everybody else of course I have a few hobby horses I am unwilling to abandon. I think the first few chapters are a bit long-winded, and it’s a while before the plot gets under way. The idea was really to build up a substantial gallery of characters and set the scene before the story got going. Etc.

I’m pleased to hear that you think the books are well written. That makes an old churner-out of texts feel happy.

You might be interested in a few of my thoughts concerning the books:

In many respects I have gone out of my way to avoid the usual approach adopted in crime novels. I have used some techniques that are normally outlawed—the presentation of Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, is based exclusively on the personal case study made by Lisbeth Salander.

I have tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn’t have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn’t listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model airplanes. He doesn’t have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotypical “slut,” as he himself admits. I have also deliberately changed the sex roles: In many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo,” while Lisbeth Salander has stereotypical “male” characteristics and values.

A rule of thumb has been never to romanticize crime and criminals, nor to stereotype victims of crime. I base my serial murderer in book I on a composite of three authentic cases. Everything described in the book can be found in actual police investigations.

The description of the rape of Lisbeth Salander is based on an incident that actually took place in the Östermalm district of Stockholm three years ago. And so on.

I have tried to avoid making victims of crime anonymous people—so, for instance, I spend a lot of time introducing Dag Svensson and Mia Johansson before the murders take place.

I abhor crime novels in which the main character can behave however he or she pleases, or do things that normal people do not do without those actions having social consequences. If Mikael Blomkvist shoots somebody with a pistol, even in self-defense, he will end up in the dock.

Lisbeth Salander is the exception to this quite simply because she is a sociopath with psychopathic traits, and does not function like ordinary people. She does not have the same concepts of “right” and “wrong” as normal people, but she also has to face up to the consequences of that.

As you have probably realized, I have devoted an awful lot of space to secondary characters who, in several respects, play just as big a role as the main characters. The intention, of course, is to create a realistic universe around Blomkvist/Salander.

In book I Dragan Armansky [head of a security firm] was introduced in considerable detail: Obviously he is going to be a secondary character who keeps cropping up. In book II the group of police officers around Bublanski and Sonja Modig are given prominent roles. And in book III Annika Giannini [Blomkvist’s sister] and Erika Berger [editor-in-chief of Millennium magazine, where Blomkvist works, and Blomkvist’s occasional lover] are much more prominent than in the earlier books. In book III another person appears who will be a regular member of the gallery of characters in future books. This is wholly intentional on my part. I think that secondary characters can often be much more exciting than the main player.

The only character with whom I have had difficulty is Christer Malm [Millennium’s art director]. In my original plot he was going to play more or less the same role as Erika Berger, but it didn’t work with him as editor-in-chief. And so I was forced to invent Erika Berger, who became a much more entertaining character.

I am going to have a problem with Miriam Wu [Salander’s girlfriend] down the line—I don’t really know what to do with her. The difficulty here of course is that Lisbeth Salander cannot acquire confidantes and at the same time remain an outsider. We shall have to see what happens.

As far as Paolo Roberto [a real-life former boxer who appears in the second novel] is concerned, I’ll have a chat with him in the near future. Kurdo [Baksi, a friend who also appears in the series] is not a problem. He’s my “little brother,” after all. We’ve known each other for many years.

All the best,


Thursday, Oct. 28, 11:39 p.m.

Hi, Eva,

Great that you like number three. It was a bit easier to write than the first two. Please tell Lasse Bergström [the former head of Norstedts, publisher of the books, who called the books “unputdownable”] that he is obviously an intelligent and sensible person of impeccable taste, and that flattery will get him everywhere.

Hmm. I cannot be sure, but I have the impression that you Norstedts people are seriously enthusiastic about my books. O.K., I know they are not bad, and of course I am delighted to read such flattering judgments: but I hope that you are not, for whatever reason, holding back negative comments. I am perfectly capable of coping with criticism

It is most satisfying to see that Lasse noticed that I changed the genre from one novel to the next: he cottoned on exactly to what I was trying to do.…



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