Book Review: The man who played with fire

There is a kind of fiction that creates for its readers a world they are reluctant to leave, so that some of them try to take up residency there.

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There is a kind of fiction that creates for its readers a world they are reluctant to leave, so that some of them try to take up residency there. The prototype here would be Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes, which have moved generations of self-designated "Sherlockians" to debate the finer points of the detective's method and make pilgrimages to 221B Baker Street, where there is a lovingly curated model of the fictional flat he shared with Doctor Watson.

JRR Tolkien's tales cast a comparable spell, turning some of its readers into philologists of Middle Earth, if not hobbits; while Ayn Rand's brand of Nietzschean pulp fiction has inspired a right-wing political current that exercises a lingering influence within American politics. Freud once noted that popular fiction often involves "a hero who is the centre of interest, for whom the writer tries to win our sympathy by every possible means and whom he seems to place under the protection of a special providence …. [In] this revealing characteristic of invulnerability we can immediately recognise His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every daydream and of every story." And so it is with Doyle, Tolkien, and Rand - but with some additional power to charm the reader into living out the daydream.

It is too soon to say whether Stieg Larsson's novels - often called "the Millennium trilogy", and lately reissued in a deluxe hardback edition of distinctly monumental proportions - create an imaginative force field powerful enough for such a cult to thrive. But it is hard to imagine better daydream fodder than Lisbeth Salander, the books' cyberpunk heroine, whose hacking skills, martial-arts prowess, and anti-authoritarian code of personal morality benefit the investigative journalists of Millennium magazine as they expose the dark underside of Swedish society.

Since publication of the first volume in Sweden in 2005 (translated as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2008), the books have sold some 40 million copies worldwide. The effect on Stockholm's tourist industry has been appreciable, since readers want to visit the neighbourhoods occupied by Larsson's characters. And now we have the beginnings, in English, of something like the burgeoning secondary literature that has appeared in Sweden - driven by curiosity about the author, who died at the age of 50, shortly before his first novel appeared.

Some of this material is rubbish. The most egregious case, so far, is Barry Forshaw's The Man Who Left Too Soon: A Biography of Stieg Larsson, which offers not much more information than the Wikipedia entry on Larsson, supplemented by detailed plot synopses of the novels that amount to roughly two-thirds of the book. More cynical contempt for the reader is hard to imagine. (One longs for Lisbeth Salander to work her magic on the author's bank account.)

Turning to Kurdo Baksi's short and rather overpriced book Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm, I braced myself for something equally opportunistic and lazy. It was not encouraging to see that its title page bore an additional subtitle calling the book A Memoir of a Freindship (sic).

Despite evidence of the publisher's haste in rushing to cash in, however, the book itself is worth reading. Thumbnail biographical sketches of the best-selling author usually mention that he also edited a Millennium-like magazine and found himself the target of ultra-right and racist groups. Baksi's memoir places these details at the centre of its portrait of Larsson, rather than the margins - so deepening one's sense that there is more to the novels than dense plots, recreational eroticism and the occasional tendency to sound like an Ikea home furnishings catalogue.

Kurdo Baksi is a Swedish journalist of Kurdish extraction who, alarmed by the rise of xenophobic nationalism in the early 1990s, organised a strike by immigrant workers to protest at murderous attacks on dark-skinned people. Larsson belonged to a slightly older generation of Swedes who had been radicalised during the Vietnam War. When he contacted Baksi, it was to argue (in a way that echoed Larsson's earlier immersion in Trotskyism) that the strike ought to be open to native-born Swedes as well, since immigrants weren't the only ones menaced by the extreme right.

This was the beginning of several years of collaboration - pooling the resources of the magazines they edited, working in anti-racist campaigns, and developing the special bond that comes from receiving death threats together. Larsson "called me his kid brother", writes Baksi, "and I called him my big brother. At first it was mainly for fun, but as time passed the names became a true reflection of our mutual trust".

Baksi recalls that sometime in 1997 his friend mentioned he was working on a piece of fiction. But this made little impression by contrast with Larsson's tireless political commitment. His catchphrase - repeated constantly and with intense conviction - was "Everybody is worth the same as everybody else." That Larsson "both supported and did his best to promote a 'multicultural society'" would have infuriated Sweden's neo-Nazis in any case, but being blond-haired and blue-eyed only made it worse.

There may be something of a younger sibling's idealisation in all of this, although Baksi also points out a domineering streak in his friend (typical of older brothers). Larsson "would go out of his way to find people with whom he could work, but all the while he wanted to dictate the way in which the cooperation functioned". He sounds almost aggressively modest - writing an article or petition for a cause while taking pains not to have his authorship known, for example, or becoming irritated when he had to go on television. "Stieg always kept something hidden," Baksi says, "despite the fact that he invariably gave so much to everyone with whom he came into contact."

The novels were part of this hidden side. Larsson wrote three of them before seeking a publisher - all the while keeping up a pace of political and journalistic work that anyone would find punishing. (The joke among friends was that he worked from seven until five - that is, from seven in the morning until five the following morning.) There was something obsessive about this intensity and discipline; he was driven.

Baksi suggests that the trilogy was, in part, an effort to exorcise a particularly shameful memory: as a teenager, Larsson sat by passively as three friends raped a girl. "When he begged her to forgive him for his cowardice and passivity, she told him bitterly that she could not accept his explanations." Her refusal to forgive him was "one of the worst memories Stieg told me about", Baksi says.

And this, I think, is where the heroine of Larsson's trilogy is somewhat different from the perfectly invulnerable, daydream-like figure that Freud described in popular fiction. Lisbeth is a ward of the welfare state who suffers extreme sexual violence. She never forgives and she never forgets; her rage is pure. She is a victim, but also her rapist's worst nightmare, and her vengeance against the corruption and injustice around her is indomitable. Baksi helps the reader understand her origins - and why a cult following seems Larsson's destiny.

Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.