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The tragic saga of a bestselling author

9 November 2009

Stieg Larsson has been continually in the news ever since publication of his first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The third part of the Milennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, has recently been published in the UK and the US.

It has a unique place in both countries, for in both of them it is extremely rare for a translated novel to have any kind of major success. Larsson has also been very successful across Europe and last month his books were high in the bestseller lists in France, Germany, Italy and Denmark. An amazing one in three Swedes has read him and 20 million of his books have already been sold across Europe alone.

What is unique about these books is the author's clear moral purpose and the immensely complicated plots. Larsson, very unusually for a male writer, is extremely concerned about misogyny and male violence directed at women. His characters, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, are not off any stock shelf and, moral purpose or not, the books are genuinely page-turning.

It's very sad that Larsson's novelist career had hardly begun before it was over, when the author was struck down by a sudden heart attack at the age of 50 after climbing seven flights of stairs. The irony is not just that he did not live to see the fantastic success of his books or to have a long career as a bestselling writer. His unexpected death has also meant that his girlfriend, 54 year-old architectural historian Eva Gabrielsson, has not inherited any rights to the books, even though she helped research them. The couple had not married, although they had lived together for over 30 years and Larsson did not make a will in her favour.

Gabrielsson says she and Larsson never married because he had believed his anti-fascist work could have put her at risk if there was a paper trail linking them legally or financially, but that he would have been dismayed to see anyone other than her in control of the estate. 'It would have been beyond Stieg's worst nightmares to know that someone other than me was handling the rights to his books and to know that the money we planned to invest is gone' she has said.

Stieg Larsson's father and brother have inherited the whole estate and don't intend to share it with Eva Gabrielson, although they have recently offered her £1.75m ($2.93m) to relinquish all rights . There are rumours that there are 200 words of a new novel and sketched-out ideas for six more in Larsson's laptop, which Gabrielson isn't about to hand over anytime soon. But could they be completed by someone else? It's difficult to see how anyone could step fully into Larsson's shoes but for his fans it's an intriguing thought.

In the meantime the current situation seems like an episode out of one of Larsson's own books, as her father and brother seek to sweep aside the woman who has been legally disinherited, but who morally surely seems entitled to her share, and to the all-important control of Larsson's work.