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Stieg Larsson and the murder mystery that haunts Sweden

Sveavagen in Stockholm where the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme took place. Photo: BJORN ELGSTRAND/TT/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The 1986 unsolved killing of prime minister Olof Palme still continues to obsess the Swedes. Roger Domeneghetti reports on how research by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author may provide a new twist.

February 1986 in Stockholm was cold but not unseasonably so and on the night of Friday 28 people were out in force on Sveavägen, one of the city’s busiest streets. Among the crowd were Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minster, and his wife Lisbet. They were walking home after a trip to the cinema. As was not uncommon, they had no bodyguards. Sweden had little history of political violence and Palme believed in open government. He wanted, as much as possible, to live like an ordinary citizen despite the fact he was in charge of the country.

Just after 11.20pm a man in a dark coat walked up behind them, put a hand on Palme’s shoulder and fired a single shot into his back with a .357 Magnum. He fired a second shot at Lisbet, grazing her shoulder, before running up a flight of 89 steps leading to a parallel street, and disappearing into the night. Palme was rushed to hospital but it was to no avail. His spinal cord had been severed. In all likelihood he had died instantly.

For Sweden it was a shocking moment, which had an effect on the nation’s psyche as damaging as the assassination of John F Kennedy did on America. This has been compounded by the fact the killing remains unsolved. “It’s still an open wound,” acknowledged Stefan Löfven, the current prime minster, following a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

Since the killing around 10,000 people have been questioned and at least 130 people have claimed they were the assassin. The Swedish police’s files on the murder take up 250m of shelving and yet the truth may have been buried in 20 boxes of research accumulated by Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the result of his own extensive investigations into the killing and his suspicion that it was the result of a conspiracy.

Following Larsson’s own death in 2004, the archive lay undisturbed in a storage facility on the outskirts of Stockholm until journalist Jan Stocklassa was given access to it. Initially sceptical about the idea of a conspiracy, the more Stocklassa read the more convinced he became that Larsson’s theories were worth pursuing, eventually leading him to write the book Larsson never had the chance to: The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin.

Palme was the privately educated scion of one of Stockholm’s most influential and conservative families, but in 1951 he chose to join the left-wing Social Democratic Party. Five years later he entered the Riksdag and in 1969 became prime minister for the first of three terms. Branded a “revolutionary reformist”, Palme instigated a redistributionist tax policy, extended the welfare state and pursued full employment policies.

Internationally he supported the non-aligned movement and was such an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War that America briefly withdrew its Swedish ambassador.

At an emergency cabinet meeting called within hours of his murder, several of Palme’s stunned colleagues expressed their belief that his death was the result of a political conspiracy; a consequence of his outspoken criticism of other governments. Similar suspicions were expressed by other MPs in parliament with the finger of blame being pointed variously at the CIA, the KGB, the PLO and Mossad.

However in July 1989 Christer Pettersson, a drug addict who had already served time for manslaughter, was jailed for the crime. The evidence against him was circumstantial and the conviction was soon overturned on appeal. While many still believed Pettersson to be guilty, others continued to doggedly look for answers in the myriad conspiracies. This latter group became known as privatspanarna, or “private detectives”. Mostly men, they included serious journalists, retired police officers and obsessive conspiracy theorists.

The most famous privatspanare was Larsson, at the time of the killing a left-wing activist with ambitions to become an investigative reporter. He would go on to write for the British anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and founded its Swedish equivalent Expo.

Most famously he wrote the Millennium novel trilogy featuring Lisbeth Salander, selling the first book months before his death and leaving complete manuscripts for two sequels which together sold 80 million copies worldwide. In 1986 he was working as an illustrator for Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, Sweden’s largest news agency.

On the day after Palme’s murder Larsson was tasked with creating a map of the crime scene and so received information from reporters working on the case. Soon he knew more than all of them. Several days later the first arrest was made. Victor Gunnarsson was a loner with far-right connections and Larsson realised that his connections might be relevant.

He subsequently worked anonymously with the social democrat newspaper Arbetet (The Labour) on an award-wining series of articles detailing anti-Palme sentiment among the Swedish far-right. Larsson also continued to conduct his own investigations and over the next 18 years, until his death, accumulating the information on which Stocklassa’s book is based. Through the editor of Searchlight, Larsson was introduced to a contact close to MI6, who in turn told Larsson about Bertil Wedin. A Swedish journalist with a military background, Wedin had been working in London. He regularly attended meetings of the Conservative Monday Club and was close to several members of the Tory Party. In 1982 he was tried for burglary of the ANC offices in London, although he was cleared of the charge.

In January 1987, Larsson sent a 30-page dossier about Wedin to the Swedish police alleging that he was a “middle man” linking South Africa’s intelligence services to Swedish far-right activists willing to carry out Palme’s killing. Supposedly the South Africans wanted to eliminate Palme as he was one of Apartheid’s fiercest critics, his government was the largest financial contributor to the ANC and he campaigned against arms sales to South Africa. Initially the police took Larsson seriously and his theory became their main focus in the early days of their investigation. But in May 1988 a new senior detective was appointed, the South Africa line of enquiry was dropped and the focus placed exclusively on the ‘lone killer’ theory.

Pettersson was subsequently arrested at the turn of the year and despite his conviction being overturned the police felt they had their man. Wedin, who lives in Northern Cyprus, – he moved there just before the assassination – has never been interviewed by Swedish police and has always denied involvement in the killing. However, the South Africa theory gained further credence in 1996 when Eugene de Kock, a self-confessed assassin for the country’s police, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Palme had been murdered because he “strongly opposed the apartheid regime and Sweden made substantial contributions to the ANC”. Three years later, the Palme Commission Inquiry, an official report into the murder investigation, detailed how a Swedish agent had been contacted by an MI6 counterpart claiming that the agency had received information that the killing was linked to South African arms dealing.

Stocklassa’s book has shone a new light on a tragedy that has haunted Sweden for three decades and Swedish police have confirmed they are following up a number of his leads. At times his book reads like a spy thriller and it’s not hard to imagine Larsson drawing inspiration from his efforts to uncover the truth for his own novels. Yet without those novels and the fame they posthumously brought him it’s doubtful his research into the assassination would have gained any attention.

The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin by Jan Stocklassa is published by Amazon Crossing

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