Stockholm: the Stieg Larsson Effect

by Lisa Gerard-Sharp 

Gritty `Scandi crime’ is our latest guilty pleasure. Whether it’s linked to the lack of sunlight or to the surplus of brooding sleuths, the Scandinavians simply do darkness better. But if `Nordic Noir’ is our winter drug of choice we must thank Stieg Larsson, whose creations show Stockholm as a disturbingly seductive destination. With sparkling waterfront vistas but dark Nordic nights, Stockholm veers between pretty and gritty. This tightrope is Stieg’s Stockholm, a wintry smorgasbord that features fewer bland blondes than bohemian bars, and juxtaposes cinematic alleys with criminally cosy cafes. Larsson’s fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

Larsson’s abiding legacy has been the birth of `Scandi crime’. “It’s the Bjorn Bjorg effect,” quips Swedish journalist Dan Lucas: “For us, it’s the same as when Bjorg won Wimbledon five times, suddenly there were tennis players all over the country. Now there are crime writers.”

As greedy armchair travellers we have lapped up bold Scandinavian dramas such as Borgen, The Bridge, and The Killing, Denmark’s answer to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But we’ve also turned back to the Swedish sources, from Henning Mankell’s world-weary detective Wallander to Stieg Larsson’s tattoed Lisbeth Salander. Stieg Larsson’s take on Scandi crime still sets the standard. The posthumous Millennium trilogy became a publishing sensation, long after Stieg’s death nine years ago, and is only surpassed by Harry Potter in the blockbuster stakes. With over 70 million copies sold, and a million e-books, a world record for a work of fiction, the cult franchise is still going strong. Thanks to Stieg Larsson, Scandinavian crime fiction is currently even more popular than Swedish cars, supermodels, flat-pack furniture or vodka.

Thanks to Hollywood, the franchise looks set to continue. Following the Swedish film adaptations, the trilogy is being remade, Hollywood-style, in Stockholm. After the acclaimed Girl with a Dragon Tattoo opener last year, directed by David Fincher, the sequel is currently in development. In The Girl who Played with Fire, Mikael Blomqvist, the crusading journalist, will still be played by ponderous, `licensed to kill’ Daniel Craig. His sparring partner remains Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, a sassy, spiky, Punkish Goth with a passion for justice and a penchant for violence. And, incidentally, “the scariest thing to come out of Sweden since Abba,” declares Niels Arlen Oplev, the director of the original Swedish film adaptation.

But in terms of famous Swedish exports, the Stieg Larsson brand feels far more Ingmar Bergman than Abba. Larsson’s was a brooding sensibility, more Stockholm in winter than sun-kissed midsummer – so perfect for wallowing in the winter blues.

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Location, location

Below a skyline of spires lies a hazy ensemble of wooden houseboats and cobbled waterfronts, with cafés serving coffee and cinnamon buns. This is a countrified capital, where fishermen catch salmon in the shadow of the royal palace, and where local children swim off improbably shimmering islands. Anything less like a gritty Swedish crime scene would be hard to imagine. It feels more Escape to the Country than Midsomer Murders. Yet this is Stieg Larsson country, the capital of Scandinavian crime fiction, and I’m here to follow in the footsteps of Nazi sympathizers, psychopathic serial killers, and a punkish wild child.

In the Hollywood remake of The Girl who Played with Fire, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is aided in his resolution of a sex-trafficking saga by Lisbeth Salander, played as a spooky S&M temptress. As Stieg Larsson’s trilogy shows us, Sweden is not all about icy blondes in black leather, just as Stockholm is not all about stylish minimalism and clean-cut modernity. The character of Lisbeth, Larsson’s troubled, tattooed, computer-hacking heroine, gains complexity in the film franchise. But it is Stockholm that emerges as the surprising star, with its ethereal light and shifting vistas evoking the subtle screenscapes of Ingmar Bergman.

The film’s moral quest, centred on corruption, rightwing extremism and the mistreatment of women, dips in and out of Stockholm, where both the movie’s protagonists live. Here you can delve into Stieg Larsson’s dark world by following a detective trail that reveals a secret side of the city, along with dramatic waterside views, designer shops, bohemian cafés, and the haunts of the film’s stars.

Playing detective

In readiness for a day deep in the Swedish crime underworld, I make the short ferry hop to Skeppsholmen, and Swedish coffee and cake at a low-key island retreat. For a waterside lunch, as enjoyed by the Dragon Tattoo stars, the Skeppsholmen restaurant is as relaxed as a Swedish smorgasbord. It was here that beady-eyed Stockholmers first spotted Rooney Mara, swathed in black leather, preparing to master Lisbeth’s motorbike skills. The actress loved the serenity of the island, despite its close proximity to Bennie Andersson’s recording studio. For a capital city, Stockholm’s silence is exceptional, and feeds its way into the films themselves. This is also a city that floats on water. A place that is two thirds water and greenery was bound to have a bucolic quality. Ingmar Bergman goes even further: `Stockholm is not a city at all: it’s simply a rather large village, set in the middle of some forest and some lakes’.

Time to leave the grassy knolls for the gritty city and `Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm’ in Södermalm.The literary trail revolves around this urban island, where Larsson lived in real life and where Lisbeth bought her palatial apartment. Cross the bridge from Gamla Stan to Södermalm play pokie machines online, via the busy interchange at Slussen, and you shift from the touristy Old Town cafés to towering clifftops and hills dotted with eclectic galleries and funky bars. In Nordic Noir mode, Sodermalm looks deliciously forbidding: legend has it that child-snatching witches once leapt off these soaring cliffs. Instead, the trilogy’s moral compass makes clear that this island was home to `the good guys’. Sodermalm still evokes a spirit of `true grit’ even if bohemian-chic prevails.

Indulge your inner bohemian in the back lane galleries around Bellmansgatan 1, Mikael’s romantic attic eyrie. When there in May, I marvelled at the sight of rooftops miraculously coated in snow, before noticing the crew’s snow machine in full flow. To enjoy an even finer version of Mikael’s view, wander round the corner to Monteliusvagen, a panoramic promenade overlooking LakeMalaren, the OldTown, and a huddle of houseboats. This was why Lisbeth chose to live in these hills.

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The fearsome hacker’s fictional home is a turning off Gotgatan, via a Synagogue, a domed church and Mikael’s fictional offices. (On your way back to the OldTown, you can call in at the CityMuseum to see a convincing recreation of Mikael’s Millennium offices). Fiskargatan 9, Lisbeth’s 21-room apartment, bought with her ill-gotten gains, was where our antisocial heroine “sat in the dark all evening, on her window-seat, watching the water on Saltsjon”. When her mood lifted, she headed around the corner to Mosebacke, an inviting square decorated with a statue of entwined sisters, and to the Sodra Teatern, a summery terrace ideal for lingering over a beer and looking down at the beguiling waterfront below.

On Södermalm, the food is classic Swedish fare: smoked reindeer, pickled cucumber and elk meatballs. Nearby, on Gotgatan, you’ll find Kvarnen, an old-world tavern where Mikael back-slapped his fellow hacks over a beer, and where Lisbeth met her rock-chick friends. In reality, the beer-hall welcomes a cheery mix of architects and Hammerby football fans— the victors tend to tuck into Swedish meatballs and mash, but there are consolatory reindeer steaks for the losing side.

We bid farewell to Stieg Larsson’s world in Mellqvist Coffee Bar at the end of bustling Hornsgatan. In his fiction, this hip café was a hotbed of intrigue, where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. In real life, this was where Stieg Larsson often used to sit and write, just to the left of the entrance. A heart attack at fifty brought an end to Larssen’s fanatical dedication and occasional fun, even if the film crew following in his ghostly wake has now taken to this trendy bar. But Eva, my guide, is an unsentimental Swede: “When you’re fifty, eat a lot of fast food and don’t exercise, that’s what happens.” I still refuse to forgo my Swedish chocolate cake.

In an incestuous twist, the Hollywood film franchise also features the cool Kaffebar on Sankt Paulsgatan 17, where the waitress is none other than the daughter of the actor who played Mikael in the Swedish version of the Larsson series. Not that the screen legends have restricted themselves to supping on elk meatballs in authentic dives. Several stars have been spotted at the glitzy Gold Bar, where the martinis, shaken not stirred, would suit ex-007 Daniel Craig. A more inventive, Michelin-starred gourmet experience can be had at Frantzén/Lindeberg in Gamla Stan.

Not that Stieg Larsson cared for the good life, only the good story. But as in all the murkiest detective stories, the ending is rarely the end. In real life, Eva Gabrielsson, Stieg Larson’s lifetime companion, not my guide, has fallen out with Larsson’s brother and father, who inherited the journalist’s estate. Eva feels that her former lover’s legacy has been betrayed. Her trump card is a draft of the final book in the Millennium series, which Larsson was finishing when he died, aged 50. Eva is in no hurry to hand over the manuscript. “Everyone wants to get their hands on it,” she admits. The plot is worthy of a Stieg Larsson cliffhanger.

For light relief following a day in the Swedish underworld, the ferry makes the short hop to the garden island of Djurgarden, a former royal hunting ground. With its sloping banks, princely turrets and pastel-tinted summer houses, this is countrified Stockholm cut adrift from its moorings — and minus the Stieg Larsson blues.

Follow in Stieg’s footsteps:

Self-guided Stieg Larsson tour: pick up the `Millennium map’ (SEK 40) from Stockholm Tourist Office or the Stockholm City Museum, where there’s a permanent Dragon Tattoo exhibition (Ryssgården, Slussen; www.stadsmuseum.stockholm.se).

Guided Larsson walks: In English every Saturday (SEK 120), booked through the City Museum (tel: +46 8 50831659, book www.ticnet.se). Meet at Bellmansgatan 1, Sodermalm (Slussen or Mariatorget metro).

Stockholm tourism: Vasagatan 14, www.visitstockholm.com, tel: +46 8 50828508. There’s also a Chasing Salander app for smartphones, featuring key film locations.

Stockholm Card (SEK 425 for 24 hours): it pays for itself if you do more than a boat trip and a couple of museums.

The movie-star life: Gold Bar, Nobis Hotel for glitzy cocktails or a glamorous dinner (tel. +46 8 6141000, www.nobishotel.se). Frantzén / Lindeberg for inventive, Michelin-starred feasting in Gamla Stan (tel. +46 8 208580, www.frantzen-lindeberg.com). Skeppsholmen hotel good-value design and boutique hotel; relaxed Swedish-style cooking by the waterside (tel. +46 8 4072300, www.hotelskeppsholmen.com). Chokladkoppen OldTown café that’s the antithesis of the movie star life (Stortorget 18, Gamla Stan, tel. +46 8 203170).

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