Any Swede old enough to remember knows where they were when their prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated. On 28 February 1986, Palme was walking home from the cinema with his wife when an unknown assailant stepped out from the shadows and shot him. We mourned not just the man, but the death of the nation that Palme personified — a safe place where nobody, not even the prime minister, needed protection.
As though to emphasise the inconceivability of the event, the murder investigation became a textbook study of police incompetence. Frustrated by the lack of progress, countless ordinary citizens began to conduct their own inquiries, fuelled by various conspiracy theories.
One of the people who caught the ‘Palme bug’ was the late crime writer Stieg Larsson. Immediately after the assassination, Larsson, then a graphic designer at the TT News Agency, went in search of the killer among the segments of society that he knew and detested most — the extreme right. By the time he died in 2004, Larsson had amassed some 15 boxes of research materials into the murder.
In The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin, the journalist Jan Stocklassa reopens Larsson’s lines of inquiry and, leveraging a storeroom full of his notes and letters, attempts to build on his evidence and solve the case once and for all.
While it was the Millennium trilogy that brought Larsson fame, it was exposing the far right that he considered his life’s mission. Brought up by his grandparents in Sweden’s rural north, Larsson was heavily influenced by his grandfather Severin, a devoted communist. As a result, Larsson’s far-left convictions grew so strong that even socialist Sweden was too right-wing for him. From Stocklassa we learn that when the Social Democrat newspaper Arbetet (The Labour) offered Larsson
a research assignment, he replied:
You know that I’m not a Social Democrat, right? I’m a Trotskyist and I write for the International. As you know, we’re not exactly thrilled with how you’re governing the country.
Whether he supported the government or not, Larsson was appalled by the murder of Palme and he eventually agreed to help the paper map out anti-Palme sentiment among the right, provided he was granted anonymity. His research was used in the article series ‘Mission: Olof Palme’, which won the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism in 1987. He also continued investigating the murder on his own, developing a theory that implicated South African security services in collusion with the Swedish far right.
Palme had been an outspoken critic of apartheid and Sweden was the largest single source of financial aid to the ANC. Sources within MI6 pointed to South Africa, as would the subsequent testimony of Eugene de Kock, the former commanding officer of C10, an infamous counter-insurgency unit of the South African police that ‘liquidated’ numerous anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s and 1990s.
Convinced that the Swedish police neglected properly to investigate Larsson’s theory, Stocklassa picked up the dormant leads a decade after the writer’s death. While the extensive listing of potential perpetrators and their affiliations bog down the story at times, for the most part his book reads like a popular thriller. This is especially true in chapters where he travels to exotic locations to track down Larsson’s unquestioned suspects — such as his efforts to confront the former secret service agent Bertil Wedin in Turkish Cyprus, or his entertainingly naive attempts to enlist a Czech beauty (code-named Lída) to extract a honey-trap confession out of a half-crazed middleman.
Over the years, Swedes have been inundated with more or less convincing theories about who killed Palme and why. It has been estimated it would take someone with legal training nine years to read through the material pertaining to the police investigation, not including the many books, reports and documentaries produced by private enthusiasts. More than 10,000 people have been questioned and at least 130 people have claimed responsibility for the assassination. Thirty-three years later, in spite of the overwhelming depth and breadth of testimonies, Swedish police have yet to solve the case.
So does the evidence presented in The Man Who Played with Fire represent a long- awaited breakthrough? Stocklassa’s own fact-checker, Gunnar Wall, who has written several non-fiction books about the murder of Palme, doesn’t think so. On his blog, Wall reveals the book’s omitted facts, questions its conclusions and suggests that in his eagerness to solve the case, Stocklassa may have been deceived by forces within the Israeli secret service.
Whatever the truth, fans of the Millennium books will certainly enjoy this recreation of Larsson’s attempts to solve a real-life murder. While we’re no nearer to a conclusive answer to who killed Palme, Stocklassa succeeds in infecting us with the ‘Palme bug’. It is impossible to read and not yearn for resolution. Perhaps it was this unrequited desire for ultimate truth that drove Larsson to the world of fiction.