Tears and tattoos

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Tears and tattoos
Photography by Peter Cederling

In a battle worthy of one of his hugely successful books, author Stieg Larsson’s untimely death has pitted his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, against his family, as she tells William Langley.

On a November afternoon in 2004, 50-year-old Stieg Larsson, an overweight, chain-smoking, Swedish news agency reporter, arrived at his office in central Stockholm. The lift wasn’t working, so Stieg hauled himself up to the seventh floor, where he collapsed with a massive heart attack. He died on the way to hospital.

Although Stieg had lived for some time with the prospect of an early death, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Much of his work was devoted to investigating neo-Nazi groups, from whom he had received several death threats. They were taken seriously enough for Stieg and his long-term girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, to take precautions to protect themselves.

The experience of living with danger had, however, helped Stieg to write three crime novels. At the time of his death, they were unpublished and hardly anyone, apart from the author, Eva and a few of their friends, even knew of the books’ existence.

Everyone knows about them now. The Millennium trilogy has become a global publishing phenomenon, outselling the Harry Potter series in Europe, topping the best-seller lists in Australia and New Zealand, and creating a frenzy of expectation in the US, which, according to The New York Times, “hasn’t been seen since the early 1840s, when they thronged the docks of New York, hailing incoming ships for the latest Charles Dickens”.

To date, Stieg’s books have sold more than 30 million copies, earning at least $50 million, with much more to come when the Hollywood adaptation of the first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, arrives in 2012.

Yet, whose money is it? As the Millennium juggernaut rolls on, the battle for Stieg’s fortune has turned into a thriller in its own right – one rich in mystery, sex, bad blood and politics. At its heart is the enigmatic figure of 53-year-old Eva, the woman who shared Stieg’s life for more than 30 years. “We had always intended to marry,” Eva tells me, sitting in a shady Stockholm park. “We fell in love when we were 18 and, when we moved here, Stieg proposed to me.”

She still wears the gold ring he gave her in 1983, with her name engraved on the inside. “We couldn’t go through with it,” she goes on. “In Sweden, when you marry, you have to put a lot of information on the public record. Stieg had received threats. I was frightened. We would have been putting ourselves at risk.”

Neither of them foresaw the deeper consequences of remaining unmarried. Sweden’s inheritance laws make no provision for de facto partners and Stieg had neglected to make a will. When he died, Eva discovered that she had no legal rights whatsoever to his estate. At first, she was philosophical. After all, the couple, who had no children, owned little apart from a modest flat in the city. It was only when The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo took off that the enormity of the implications hit her.

“We had always shared everything,” Eva says. “Sometimes, I earned a bit more and sometimes he did. It wouldn’t have been Stieg’s way to make a will. He thought about living, not dying.”

Read more of this story in the October issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Your say: What do you think of this story? Have you read any of the Millennium series? Share with us below.

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