Last month, Random House made a startling announcement. One of their authors had made e-book history, becoming the first author ever to sell one million digital copies of a single book. But of course, their announcement was haunted by a dark irony. It was six years after that author’s death, and a life of mysterious secrets.
The book is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” by Stieg Larsson (who died of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50). And there’s an even darker secret behind the origins of the book. Larsson was haunted by an assault on a young woman that he’d witnessed in his own teenaged years. That’s according to a new biography about his life which was just released in September.
“For Larsson geeks such as myself, the unearthed details of his past and the fond recollections of his ceaseless pursuit of justice are gripping,” wrote one reviewer. 12 years before his death, Larsson had started an intense friendship with another Swedish journalist named Kurdo Baksi. In fact, Baksi actually appears as himself in Larsson’s final book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Its hero, Mikael Blomkvist, visits the offices of Black/White Publishing, and then later reads about his own visit in a surveillance report.
It was 2:30 in the afternoon. He didn’t have an appointment, but the editor, Kurdo Baksi, was in and delighted to see him.
“Hello there,” he said heartily. “Why don’t you ever come and visit me anymore?”
“I’m here to see you right now,” Blomkvist said.
“Sure, but it’s been three years since the last time.”
They shook hands…
In the novel, the two are old friends, since Baksi had begun his career publishing that magazine secretly at night, later hiring Mikael as a proofreader. (“Blomkvist sat on a sofa while Baksi got coffee
from a machine in the hallway. They chatted for a while, the way you do when you haven’t seen someone for some time, but they were constantly by Baksi’s mobile…People called from all over the world to talk to Baksi.”) Then Mikael requests an introduction to Baksi’s Kurdish uncle, because of his expertise in getting immigration-related residency permits.
Baksi knew that Blomkvist was busy planning some sort of mischief, which he was famous for doing. They might not have been best friends, but they never argued either, and Blomkvist had never hesitated if Baksi asked him a favour.
“Am I going to get mixed up in something I ought to know about?”
“You’re not going to get involved… And I repeat, I won’t ask him to do anything illegal.”
This assurance was enough for Baksi. Blomkvist stood up. “I owe you one.”
“We always owe each other one.”
The real-life Baksi tells a story that seems so intertwined with the novels, at first I had to wonder if it was a hoax. But “Baksi walks the line between grieving friend and impartial investigator reasonably well…” a reviewer noted, and another article by ABC News confirms that the real-life Baksi does publish a magazine about race relations that’s called Black/White. And they also report that Baksi’s book — titled “Stieg Larsson, My Friend” — ultimately clarifies a surprising connection between what Larsson wrote and his own childhood. This part of the story is a little graphic, but it ends with a teenaged girl shouting “I will never forgive you.”
In 1969, 15-year-old Stieg Larsson had watched, terrified, and did nothing as three friends had raped a 15-year-old girl. Larsson later phoned her to apologize (though she shouted “I will never forgive you”),
and according to Baksi, the author was haunted by the incident for the rest of his life. “It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape.” The girl’s name was Lisbeth — and in his book, Stieg gave her name to his own empowered heroine.
Each section of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” opens with a statistic about the number of assaults on women. Baksi believes the novels were “his way of apologizing”, according to one article, and Baksi himself remains committed to avenging that 1969 assault. (“I don’t even know if Lisbeth is alive,” he tells the reporter, “But it’s very important to me.”) The book’s original title was “Men Who Hate Women,” and there were two other news events which moved the author to write it. A fashion model was killed in 2001 when she’d tried to end a relationship with a boyfriend, and the same year a Swedish-Kurdish woman was killed when she tried to break away from her father.
Possibly because of the author’s real-life commitment, his books ultimately shattered several records in the publishing industry. The combined e-book sales for all three books in the trilogy is more than three million, Larsson’s publishers told the New York Times. And in both print and non-print editions, it sells another half a million copies each month. In the United States, hardcover sales alone were 300,000 copies for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — which was only released in the U.S. in September of 2008 — and the trilogy has sold nearly 17 million copies.
There’s a rumor that a manuscript exists for a fourth, “nearly finished” book. (Before his death, Larsson had claimed to have ideas for at least 10 more books in the series.) Ironically, his widow has earned a single penny from the sales of the book. (Playing off of Larsson’s title, one article described her as “The Girl Who Didn’t Inherit a Fortune.”)
I’ve read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and it really is quite a story. And I also remember last year, when all three of Larsson’s e-books simultaneously occupied the #1, #2, and #3 spots on Amazon’s best-seller list. There’s another biography about Larsson’s life, written by an expert on crime fiction, who notes that Stieg Larsson’s life “would be remembered as truly extraordinary even had his trilogy never been published. Larsson was a workaholic: a political activist, photographer, graphic designer, a respected journalist, and the editor of numerous science fiction magazines.” (Adding “At night, to relax, he wrote crime novels…”)
But in one of the great ironies, that biography of the best-selling e-book author has never actually been released in an e-book format. When the book was released last year, I looked on the positive side, noting that “it’s nice to see that in the middle of the book-publishing feeding frenzy, the author himself is receiving some genuine appreciation from the people who knew and remembered him.”
And with the release of “Stieg Larsson, My Friend,” that’s even more true.