In 2004 Stieg Larsson was a relatively unknown Swedish journalist and photographer, the editor of a few obscure magazines and a part-time worker for left wing political organizations. But in his spare time at home he had laid out the detailed outline of a series of ten crime thrillers, had completed writing the first three of them and was busy on the fourth book. He made no attempt to get any of these published. Then he died suddenly in November 2004 at the age of 50 after having a heart attack while climbing a flight of stairs.
After his death his life partner Eva Gabrielsson sent the three completed manuscripts to a publisher and in 2005 they were published in Swedish. The central figure in the trilogy was a girl called Lisbeth Salander, a very alternative and most unlikely heroine - she was short, unattractive, socially inept and sported tattoos (the first book in the series was called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). All three books proved popular in Sweden, but nobody could possibly have predicted the phenomenal success that followed when they were translated into English and became available internationally. The Dragon Tattoo trilogy became an instant worldwide bestseller, temporarily displacing even JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) as the fastest-selling set of books on the planet. To date Larsson's original trilogy has sold more than 80 million copies in over 50 countries worldwide.
Each of the three books was made into a Swedish-language movie starring Noomi Rapace as Larsson's off-beat heroine. In 2012 a big-budget Hollywood version of the first book was released, starring Daniel Craig (the latest James Bond actor). However, this movie did not quite capture the mood of the books in the same way that the Swedish films did, and it remains to be seen whether the other two books will follow as English-language movies.
The most amazing thing about this incredible publishing success story is that Stieg Larsson had apparently written the books for his own amusement and hadn't really been too concerned about getting them published. It's almost as if he hadn't been aware of his own writing talents!
Unfortunately, since Larsson's death there has been a lot of sordid wrangling over who owns the rights to the other seven books in the series he planned, one of which was about two thirds complete when he died. Larsson had no will and for various reasons he had never married his life partner Eva Gabrielsson. Under Swedish law she was thus entitled to nothing - everything he owned reverted to his surviving family members, his father and a brother. However, Larsson had fallen out with his family and had had no contact with them for several years. Nonetheless his father and brother demanded all of the remaining manuscripts, despite Eva Gabrielsson's plea that she wanted nothing from Larsson's estate except his notes, incomplete manuscripts and book outlines. She has stated that she would easily be able to finish writing the fourth book in the series. Unfortunately this very reasonable request fell on deaf ears and she was left with nothing.
It appears that the fourth Dragon Tattoo book will finally be published in 2015, but it seems as if it won't be based on Larsson's incomplete manuscript - David Lagercrantz, an author contracted by Larsson's father, brother and publisher, is apparently writing an entirely new novel. Millions of people worldwide are waiting for the latest book to hit the shelves ; it is virtually guaranteed to be an instant sell-out. One can only presume that the next six books in the series will follow at regular intervals.
This is an incredible tale but one with a rather sad end. By all accounts both Stieg Larsson and Eva Gabrielsson were decent and honourable people, not deserving of the treatment meted out to them by Swedish law after Larsson's untimely death. Larsson may have been a supremely talented writer but his unfortunate lack of foresight regarding his partner leaves a somewhat bitter taste.
[Update 1] October 2015 : The fourth book in the Dragon Tattoo saga was published. Called "The Girl in the Spider's Web", it was written entirely from scratch and has proved to be popular, but has not matched the record-breaking sales of Larsson's three books. David Lagercrantz, the author contracted by Larsson's family to write the book, did not use any of the work or notes that Stieg Larsson left behind.
[Update 2] September 2017 : The fifth book in the Dragon Tattoo saga was published. Also written by David Lagercrantz, it was called "The Girl who takes an Eye for an Eye".
[Update 3] October 2018 : "The Girl in the Spider's Web" (book 4 in the series) was made into an English-language movie. Unlike previous screen adaptations of books in this series, the movie plot bears little resemblance to that of the book. Claire Foy takes over the role of Lisbeth Salander and Sverrir Gudnason appears as journalist Mikael Blomkvist.
[Update 4] August 2019 : The sixth book in the Dragon Tattoo saga was published. Once again authored by David Lagercrantz, it was titled "The Girl who Lived Twice" and received fairly ordinary reviews on GoodReads.com and in the Washington Post. It appears as if this book will be the last of the series - David Lagercrantz has announced that he will not be writing any more Dragon Tattoo sequels.