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Stockholm, where the Millennium trilogy comes to life

By Christine Dell'Amore
Sunday, February 14, 2010; F01

It's Dec. 20, the date on which the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson opens his blockbuster crime novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." And in a happy coincidence, I'm in Stockholm to tour some of the real-life places that the characters haunt in the book.

Except in the book, there's no raging snowstorm.

By the time I make it to the island of Sodermalm, where the novel is set, I'm thanking the Norse gods that I bought snow boots earlier in the morning. I wait in front of Bellmansgatan 1, the trendy address of main character Mikael Blomkvist, inhaling snowflakes and starting to worry that the tour has been canceled, when my guide, Elisabeth Daude, materializes from the whiteout like a snow angel, draped in a cream-colored shawl.

As we set off on our tour, she tells me that like his hero, Larsson lived on this former working-class island, the southernmost of the 14 on which Sweden's capital city is built. The author had been working on a 10-book series when he died unexpectedly in 2004, just after delivering the first three manuscripts: "Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," whose May 25 U.S. release is anxiously anticipated by the series's ardent fans.

The novels tag along on the escapades of Blomkvist, the muckraking publisher of a financial magazine named Millennium, and his research partner and occasional lover, Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant 20-something hacker with a troubled past. Since "Tattoo's" release in 2005, the so-called Millennium crime trilogy has gone, well, gangbusters. It has sold 23 million copies worldwide; the books have been translated to the big screen in Sweden -- the first film is coming to New York and Los Angeles theaters on March 19 -- and recently, Hollywood has come knocking (George Clooney is rumored to be interested in the role of Blomkvist). So have Millennium readers like me, eager to see the books off the page on the weekly tours run by the Stockholm City Museum.

Today, only Daude and I have braved the weather. We trudge uphill for a better look at the building that houses Blomkvist's attic apartment. No one knows why Larsson chose to put Blomkvist in this particular building, whose narrow, curved windows and turret remind me of an elegant castle. A family named Blomkvist lives in one of the apartments, but they didn't know Larsson, Daude says. But the author knew this area very well, so he might have passed the impressive structure and taken a liking to it. In "Tattoo," Blomkvist fears he'll lose the apartment after he's convicted of libel against corrupt financier Hans-Erik Wennerström. I could understand his concern: Overlooking the Saltsjon bay and Gamla Stan, Stockholm's medieval old town, the apartment has to have one of the most coveted views in the city.

Not that Blomkvist really noticed. In the books, Larsson "doesn't ever caress the city," Daude tells me in flawless English. Although the second film, for instance, depicts glittering sunsets, the author didn't "give a damn about the sun," she says. Larsson was a realist whose books are "packaged in a way where the fiction is baked into facts that you know so well, so fiction becomes so incredibly real -- and that makes it so thrilling," she says.

I feel the same way. I'd read the first book and part of the second before the tour, and both had roped me in from the start. Larsson has an endearing penchant for describing his characters' daily routines -- he details Salander's grocery list at 7-Eleven, for instance (I even got a few ideas for sandwich recipes). As a result, I arrived in Stockholm feeling as though I already knew the characters intimately and was familiar with the city beyond its tourist sites.

Having read Larsson's gritty narrative, I can easily imagine Salander lurking in the shadows or Blomkvist chasing down a source. Roaming Sodermalm, though, I find it hard to picture sadistic crimes and murders taking place in this pretty corner of Sweden. Earth-toned houses where laborers once lived are now the domain of edgy and fashionable Stockholmers who have opened tattoo parlors, art galleries and artisan gift shops along the often hilly cobblestone streets. Peeking inside the upscale shops gives me a New York City vibe; sure enough, there's even a neighborhood with the hip nickname of SoFo (for south of Folkungagatan). Lest a Sodermalm visitor forget its history, though, the island is peppered throughout with squares or small parks, many anchored by centuries-old churches. I'm struck by the snowy beauty of the circa-1760s square Mariatorget, which features a statue of Thor slaying a serpent.

But that might have been exactly Larsson's point: There's a lot of ugliness that goes unnoticed or ignored, even in such prosperous parts of the world.

As we walk, Daude, a freelance guide who has studied up on Larsson and the series for the city museum's Millennium tours, acts as if we've just crossed over into the author's fictional world. She always asks visitors which books they've read and tailors the tour accordingly, so as to avoid any spoilers. At each stop, she pauses, finds a spot to rest her bag and slowly unspools a story, completely unperturbed by the driving snow that sticks to our eyelashes and hair. Her voice becomes tender when she talks about "Lisbeth's" hardships and Larsson's untimely death. She finds the books' success bittersweet, she tells me: She fears that she won't recognize her "good old Stieg Larsson" after Hollywood has had its way with the series.

Larsson's crusading duo might have been inspired by his own life, she says. He was a journalist and political activist who founded the self-described "anti-right wing and anti-racist" magazine Expo, still in publication. He was also a feminist and, Daude says, chose the unusual route of crime thrillers to bring attention to violence against women. In "Tattoo," Blomkvist's investigations uncover a murderer who preys on sex workers, and "Fire" focuses on illegal sex trafficking between the Baltic states and Sweden. "Tattoo's" Swedish title is "Men Who Hate Women." Perhaps that was "too brutal" for U.S. audiences, Daude surmises.

Near the end of Hornsgatan, one of the island's two main drags, we stop in front of a tiny neighborhood coffee shop, Mellqvist Kaffebar, known in the books as just Kaffebar, which was its name under previous owners. This is where the lovesick Salander watches, furious, as Blomkvist heads home with his longtime lover and colleague, Erika Berger, at the end of "Tattoo." Salander isn't the first to fall for the attractive Blomkvist; as Daude says, "He pleases everybody."

She takes me to the place where Blomkvist and Berger work, on Sodermalm's other main street, the fashionable Gotgatan. Daude points out the third-floor Millennium magazine offices (they're apartments in real life) above the Greenpeace offices in a tan five-story mixed-use building.

From Gotgatan we walk uphill to Fiskargatan 9, the luxury building where, in "Fire," the newly wealthy Salander buys a 25-room top-floor apartment. The mysterious Salander is Larsson's vision of Pippi Longstocking all grown up, Daude tells me. She's tattooed yet doll-like, with a mercurial temper offset by a heart of gold. The stand-alone structure where her apartment is set -- golden-hued with a copper-green roof -- reminds me of a traditional Parisian apartment building plopped down on this little hill in Stockholm.

At the end of the tour, we walk back to the bridge to Gamla Stan. With a reminder to read the third book, Daude bids me goodbye and disappears back into the snow.

* * *

I return to Sodermalm the next day, after the storm. Icicles shatter as workers pluck them from their eaves, and families walk by dragging snow-dusted Christmas trees. I drop into Mellqvist Kaffebar and order a vanilla croissant and a latte in honor of Blomkvist, who is so addicted to coffee that "you can smell your way through the books," Daude said. In another melding of fact and fiction, this was Larsson's hangout before it was Blomkvist's (and Michael Nyqvist, the actor who played Blomkvist in the Swedish films, comes here, too).

Warmed and caffeinated, I head south in the pitch-black evening for Kvarnen, a 100-year-old beer hall Daude recommended I visit. The bisexual Salander hangs out here with her female rock band Evil Fingers, and in "Fire" she kisses her girlfriend Mimmi Wu in an attempt to make Blomkvist jealous. I was worried about blending in with punk rockers but am relieved to discover an inviting, high-ceilinged restaurant and bar. From the nose-pierced to the necktied, "everyone melts in here," bartender Joakim Simmingskôld tells me.

I plop down at the massive wooden bar and order the fried herring (served, curiously, with a shot of anise liqueur) and an Eriksberg beer. When I ask around for Millennium readers, I find a devotee in Björn Lindkvist, 53, a primary school principal who says that Larsson "trusts his readers" to follow the plot. Lindkvist fills me in on the ongoing battle for Larsson's multimillion-dollar fortune, which has pitted his father and brother against his 30-year partner, Eva Gabrielsson.

Before he leaves, Lindkvist advises me to read the books "very slowly, because you don't want them to stop." Indeed, for Millennium fans, not knowing how Larsson planned to end the series can be agonizing. "There are many threads which we live with unfinished," Daude said.

Though we'll never know what ultimately happens to Blomkvist and Salander, at least we can walk in their shoes -- provided they're waterproof, of course.

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