[17 October 2010]
The story of Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy would be a tough sell as fiction: even with the facts clearly documented it staggers the imagination. A journalist and political activist who was the recipient of many death threats for his work exposing racism and far-right extremism in Swedish society, Larsson died in 2004 (at age 50) of natural causes.
In his spare time he wrote crime fiction for relaxation and completed three novels, the first of which was published a few months after his death. These books (their English-language titles are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) were sensationally successful both in Sweden and internationally, winning numerous awards and becoming global best-sellers. All three Millennium novels have been filmed in Swedish and a Hollywood remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already underway. An inheritance dispute has also helped keep the Larsson story in the headlines: under Swedish law Larsson’s life partner Eva Gabrielsson has no right to any revenues from his work because they were not married and he did not leave a will.
There’s still a huge public appetite for Larsson (all three of his novels are in the Amazon top 10 best sellers list at this writing) but there are no more completed works by Stieg Larsson and eventually everyone who wants to buy the Millennium Trilogy will have done so. He also left behind several unfinished works, which will likely be brought to print, and we can also expect to see numerous books about Larsson brought to market as long as there’s a public willing and able to buy them.
First off the mark is The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson by British critic and author Barry Forshaw (his books include The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia). It’s not a bad book so much as it is disappointing in its superficial nature due, presumably, to the rush to be the first in print to capitalize on the public fascination with Larsson and his works.
Forshaw’s book is not a biography of Larsson: at its best it’s more of an introductory handbook to the man and his work and at its worst resembles a fan’s guide of the sort often published in conjunction with popular television series. If you want to know how to book a Stieg Larsson walking tour of Stockholm (complete with descriptions of what you can expect to experience on such a tour, including the opportunity to buy Billy’s Deep Pan Pizza), you will find that in this volume. You will also find a capsule guide to other Scandinavian writers of crime fiction, a brief chapter on filmed versions (already out of date, of course) and a lengthy section on the responses of other crime writers and critics to Larsson’s work. This last section consists mostly of lengthy quotations from each respondent as if they were responding to a mass query by email and their responses were published verbatim.
The biographical section of The Man Who Left Too Soon occupies about 60 pages which is about a fifth of the total book. To do a real biography of Larsson, who for reasons of security took great pains to conceal details about his life, would have required some serious digging, a time consuming endeavor which would have precluded Forshaw’s book being the first on Larsson to hit the market.
Instead of doing that work, Forshaw supplies a breezy, journalistic rehash of information mostly available elsewhere and which feels as if it was hastily assembled from whatever facts and quotations came readily to hand. This section relies heavily on generalities and clichés (“Joakim, Stieg’s brother, is a complex and intriguing figure” “Eva Gabrielsson is a fascinating, complex figure in her own right” “Of course, the Holy Grail for Stieg Larsson admirers is the fabled fourth book”) which would be more acceptable in a fanzine than in a hardbound book. Forshaw quotes liberally from previously published material and seems not to have conducted any personal interviews with Gabrielsson, a key figure in Larsson’s adult life.
More than half of The Man Who Left Too Soon is taken up with summaries of the Millennium Trilogy novels and comments on them by the author. These chapters don’t really qualify as analysis, but lie somewhere between a pony of the CliffsNotes variety (why anyone should need such an aid for these eminently readable popular novels is a question for another day) and a fan’s gushing appreciation. Forshaw opens this section of the book with the question “What is the secret of Larsson’s astonishing posthumous success in Sweden?” then proceeds to not answer it, beyond telling us what is obvious to anyone who has read the novels.
Fans of Stieg Larsson’s novels who want to read anything related to them which they can get their hands may well be delighted with The Man Who Left Too Soon. Those hoping for a real biography or an in-depth analysis of his works will have to wait for a better book to be written.