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In 'The Man Who Played With Fire,' Stieg Larsson Is Brought To Life Again

Stieg Larsson is most widely known in the U.S. as the author of the Millennium series. But long before writing his thrillers, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which were published posthumously, Larsson was a journalist, an independent researcher and an activist seeking to expose the danger of white-nationalist, right-wing extremist, and neo-Nazi groups in Sweden.

While others waved away such groups as marginal and not to be taken seriously, Larsson saw almost 40 years ago how their racist, sexist and otherwise violent rhetoric had the potential to become legitimized. And his predictions as to how they could — and would — attain power have been visible all over the world as populist and nationalist regimes and parties gain legitimacy.

Larsson, his politics and his journalistic research are at the center of a new book by Swedish journalist Jan Stocklassa, The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson's Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin, translated by Tara F. Chase. For years, Larsson dedicated his free time to, among other causes, trying to solve the mystery of Sweden's most well-known political assassination, that of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. Unlike the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which is officially solved, Palme's is not. And the conspiracy theories surrounding Palme's assassination are as numerous and alternatively far-fetched and disturbingly plausible as those circulating about JFK's. Gaining access to Larsson's archival material — maintained by the anti-racist magazine Expo he founded in 1995 — Stocklassa closely examines the work Larsson did on the Palme case and picks up the thread where it was left off, delving even deeper into the mystery.

Olof Palme was an outspoken left-wing politician, and his assassination was particularly shocking because the killer easily and quickly got away. Walking home from a movie theater late on the night of Feb. 28, 1986, Palme and his wife, Lisbeth, were accosted by an assassin who shot the prime minister point-blank before firing a second shot, which only got through Lisbeth's coat, before running off. There had been no security detail as Palme had sent his bodyguards away earlier in the evening.

While there were many, many witnesses interviewed over the coming days, weeks, months and years about what they saw in the vicinity of the murder scene, conflicting accounts and police incompetency — or cover-up, depending on how conspiratorial you feel like getting — made a mess of the early days of the investigation. Eventually, a known criminal named Christer Pettersson was arrested, tried and convicted, but he was acquitted on appeal as there was no real evidence against him. Still, for years after, while the case was still open, the attitude seemed to be that for the police, at least, the matter was closed.

In the first half of the book, Stocklassa does a fantastic job at illustrating how Larsson went about trying to get to the bottom of it all, using letters, original research and summaries from the archives to bring the man's voice to life as well as to walk readers through the timeline of Larsson's detective work and his two main theories. One had to do with various right-wing extremists in Sweden who were openly hostile toward Palme, while the other had to do with the South African government and its displeasure at Palme's vocal criticism of their apartheid regime (later on, Stocklassa makes a compelling and satisfying argument for how these lines of inquiry are actually linked). While the "Stieg" section is fascinating, it also dramatizes Larsson's life and work in invented scenes that, like dramatic reenactments in true-crime documentaries, are a matter of taste for readers who will likely find them either annoyingly distracting or helpful in entering the dense political detail of the subject matter.

It's in the second half of the book, however, that Stocklassa himself enters the story, and it's gratifying to read how honest he is about his motivations — unlike Larsson, he wasn't fighting for a cause but rather stumbled into an obsession — as well as his struggles with the ethics and cost of this years-long journalistic project. Especially interesting, and honestly thrilling, is how one of Stocklassa's attempts to reach out to all possible leads brought him into communication with an ally of such dedication and talent that it's hard not to compare her, at least a bit, to Lisbeth Salander of Larsson's books.

It's rare, I've found, to see true-crime narratives that convincingly and humbly enter the realm of spy thrillers, but Stocklassa's book really, really does. Whether or not you buy his conclusions — they're well-argued, to be fair, and have led the Swedish police into renewing old lines of inquiry — Stocklassa certainly reveals the sinister underbelly of governmental operations.

Ilana Masad is an Israeli American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel, All My Mother's Lovers, is forthcoming from Dutton in 2020.

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Ilana Masad
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