The scene toward the close of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played With Fire" is gut-wrenching: Two men tie up and take turns raping a 16-year-old prostitute who has been lured to Sweden in a sex trafficking ring.
The wildly popular author of the "Millennium" trilogy, which also includes, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," is graphic in his descriptions of violence against women, and now his closest friend reveals why.
Larsson had his own dark secret. At the age of 15 he witnessed a gang rape and never intervened, according to longtime friend Kurdo Baksi. Days later, ridden with guilt, Larsson asked the victim for her forgiveness, but she refused.
That girl was Lisbeth, the name later given to the tattooed, Asperger's-afflicted Lisbeth Salander -- heroine of Larsson's three novels.
The guilt over failing to act haunted Larsson his entire life and fueled the subject of his crime novels, according to Baksi, who wrote "Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm," a soon-to-be published memoir devoted to setting the record straight about Larsson's real-life commitment to social justice.
"It was his way of apologizing," said Baksi, who is devoted to avenging the gang rape that haunted his friend for so many years.
So far, he hasn't found their identities, but has pledged to continue the search.
"I don't even know if Lisbeth is alive," said Baksi. "But it's very important to me."
Larsson, in real life an investigative journalist who was a tireless advocate for women, died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004.
His books chronicle the adventures of the quirky, computer hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander and the crusading editor Michael Blomkvist, who get entangled in murders, sex trafficking and corporate crime.
Published posthumously, the books have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and more than 50,000 copies a day in the United States.
The Swedish film, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," came out in 2009 and an American remake with Daniel Craig is set for release in 2011.
The Swedish title for first book and film is "Men Who Hate Women," a theme that pervades all three books and his previously published works.
Baksi and Larsson met in 1992 through socialist efforts and later grew close as editors. Baksi, editor of the antiracist magazine, Black and White, helped the writer found his investigative magazine, Expo, the model for the trilogy's Millennium.
The magazines later merged and they worked together almost daily. "He called me his little brother," said Baksi, now 45.
"He was a guy who was always with you," said Baksi. "It was an "unconditional friendship."
"Stieg told me, 'I need to write this book'," he said. "'It's really important to me. I saw a rape and I didn't do anything. I felt terrible about what I had seen.'"
The incident happened in 1969 at a camping site in northern Sweden. Three of his friends assaulted a 15-year-old girl as Larsson watched.
"Her screams were heartrending, but he didn't intervene," writes Baksi in his book. "His loyalty to his friends was too strong. He was too young, too insecure. It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape."
Larsson's apology fell on deaf ears. "In the north of Sweden, nobody forgets," said Baksi.
Most readers assume Larsson saw himself as the gregarious over-sexed Blomkvist, but that was not the case, according to Baksi.
"He was very jealous of Blomkvist, who was a respected journalist who makes a lot of money and has a lot of women," he said. "He'd like to be like him."
Larsson "ended up being like [Mozart's] Salieri -- his alter ego," said his friend.
In fact, Larsson was more like Lisbeth Salander. Both shared a distrust of police and preferred not to talk about the past and were bad eaters, living on junk food.
Like Salander, he drank up to 20 cups of coffee a day and smoked two to three packs of cigarettes. Friends never knew Larsson was working on the three crime novels, mostly working between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Though Salander was a whiz at mathematics, even attempting to solve Fermat's Theorem, Larsson was notoriously bad with money, nearly bankrupting Expo.
According to Baksi, Larsson hoped the eventual success of his books would help fund the magazine.
Born in 1954, the son of a decorator and a shop worker who often moved, Larsson was adopted by his maternal grandfather at the age of 8 and lived with him in the north of Sweden until he was 18.
As a teen, Larsson got involved in Trotskyism -- an interest that bonded him with Baksi. Those who knew Larsson said he began writing the first book of the trilogy in 1997.
Two other events shaped the narratives: In 2001, model Melissa Nordell was killed by her Swedish boyfriend when she tried to break off the relationship. That same year, Fadime Sahindal, a Swedish-Kurdish woman, was murdered by her father because she wanted to lead her own life.
Though Larsson wrote on weighty topics like honor killings, racism and exploitation of women, he wanted to become a bestselling author, according to Baksi.
"He knew he needed a lot violence to sell the books," said Baksi. "He used to say, you can't sell books if you are like the Dalai Lama."
His father had worked in the cinema and Larsson was able to watch American films for free, becoming a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and George Lucas' "Star Wars," thrilling films that may have helped shape his twisting plots.
For all Larsson's condemnation of American politics and unrestrained capitalism, he loved American food, especially McDonald's.
"Every time he ate at McDonald's, he wouldn't drink the Coke, he'd drink water, just to underline that he's not too American," Baksi. "He was a leftist Trotsky guy, but he'd eat french fries."
Larsson once told Baksi he had "10 books in my head."
Eva Gabrielsson, the writer's partner of more than 20 years, reportedly holds Larsson's computer and the fragment of a fourth science fiction novel.
Gabrielsson, the model for Blomkvist's sometimes lover, Erika Berger, did not inherit the rights to his works or any part of his $30 million estate.
His widow is now embroiled in a fight with Larsson's father and younger brother, Erland and Joakim Larsson, and Baksi has offered to intervene and "sit down to lunch" with the trio.
"We must find a solution, but Eva doesn't like to listen and compromise," he said. "It's terrible."
"The latest thinking is that the book could be completed," said Barry Forshaw, who published this year the first Larsson biography, "The Man Who Left Too Soon." "There's a beginning and an end, but no middle."
In America, readers have been "much more generous" to the family, said Forshaw. "But in Sweden, they are demonized. Eva Gabrielsson has presented herself as a victim like Lisbeth Salander. Both sides haven't handled it well."
Gabrielsson no longer talks to journalists and is reportedly writing her own memoir of life with Larsson. "She's not giving away any secrets," he said.
No one knows if more biographies are likely on the way. "When Elvis died everyone, including the hairdresser had a book," said Forshaw. "But he was quite private."
One of the controversial claims is whether Larsson was a good enough writer to pen the books and whether he was perhaps ghosted, in part, by Gabrielsson.
"He was unpolished as a journalist and Eva's writing was more elegant," said Forshaw. "But he was a born mystery writer."
Some feminists have been critical of Larsson's lurid depictions of sexual violence against women. But the women in Larsson's books are not the manipulated victims he championed in real life. Like Salander, they are fighters and resist exploitation.
"Being witness to the [gang rape] was significant and it even made him unhappy about his own sex," he said. "He said it makes you rather ashamed of being a man who becomes a scumbag."
"He lets you have your cake and eat it, too," said Forshaw. "He lets you enjoy or be titilated by sexual violence, but there is a price to be paid."
Still Larsson gives readers several good men in his books: Blomkvist for one, corporate tycoon Henrik Vanger who bucked his evil family to solve his great niece's murder, and even Salander's lustful, but gentlemanly boss at Milton Security, Dragon Armansky.
"Armansky tries to screw Lisbeth, but she says, 'I am not interested,' and then he is fine," said Forshaw. "Men just need to behave well. He's a lot like Charles Dickens -- not just bad behavior and evil, but people behaving well."
Forshaw said Larsson's global celebrity might not have come had he died an investigative reporter, even though he consulted with Scotland Yard and spent a lifetime devoted to human rights.
But his early death and colorful lifestyle have peaked interest in the novelist.
"He was this kind of work-a-holic figure who didn't look after himself and was heavy smoker and lived on junk food like a Fleet Street journalist," he said. "It was a different era."
Larsson's friend Baksi wants his own new book to reveal what drove the real man's passion and creativity.
"Every reader in the U.S. should know that Stieg Larsson was a guy fighting for women and for immigrants and for justice," said Baksi.
Larsson died Nov. 9, 2004 -- the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi murder of 91 Jews and the ensuing arrest of tens of thousands who were sent to concentration camps.
The writer was smartly dressed waiting to go to one of Baksi's annual seminars on the topic, but his "little brother" got the call that Larsson was dead.
Despite rumors that Larsson had been murdered, Baksi said emphatically, "Absolutely not. He died because of his smoking and eating. No one killed him, I am very sure."
Baksi was first to view Larsson's body in the hospital.
"When I saw him, he had a big smile and was in his best clothes and tie," said his friend. "I had never seen him as beautiful as when he was dead. He looked so young."