The Study

Stieg Larsson's Death: Coffee or Conspiracy?

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Yesterday saw the English-language release of "'There Are Things I Want You to Know' About Steig Larsson and Me," the memoir of longtime Larsson companion and occasional caster of Viking hexes Eva Gabrielsson.  Gabrielsson lived with the Swedish author for over 30 years until his unexpected death in 2004 of a heart attack. Shortly after his death, Larsson's books - "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played With Fire," and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - became massive international bestsellers.

Rumors have long swirled around the cause of Larsson's death - he co-founded a magazine devoted to investigating racists and the extreme far-right, and he sometimes received death threats for his work. Some believe that the extremists he targeted might have followed through on such threats. But one reviewer claims to have discovered the much more mundane truth in the text of Larsson's novels. In his New York Times Book Review piece on the trilogy's third installment, David Kamp noted that "Larsson's is a dark, nearly humorless world, where everyone works fervently into the night and swills tons of coffee; hardly a page goes by without someone 'switching on the coffee machine,' ordering 'coffee and a sandwich' or responding affirmatively to the order 'Coffee?'" In light of these details, Kamp put forward his own theory: "Coffee killed him. If we accept that Blomkvist [a main character in the trilogy] is, in many respects, a romanticized version of Larsson, and that Blomkvist's habits reflected the author's own, Larsson overcaffeinated himself to death." 

After reading Gabrielsson's memoir, Kamp has now claimed vindication for his theory. On the first page, Gabrielsson writes that if she had to point to one similarity between Larsson and his protagonist, "it would surely be their impressive daily quota of coffee." Could this mean that Larsson's fellow coffee-lovers are in grave danger?

The short answer is: it depends. According to a paper (PDF) by two Oregon State University researchers called "Coffee and Health: A Review of Recent Human Research," there are some health benefits associated with moderate coffee drinking, but the delicious brew is not for everyone. Children, adolescents, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with hypertension are all relatively vulnerable to the adverse effects of caffeine consumption. For others, though, coffee may reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver disease - and in contrast to one common fear, the authors find little evidence that coffee increases the risk of cancer. 

For all those benefits, however, there is one major drawback - and it may suggest that Kamp is onto something. In reviewing the research on links between coffee consumption and coronary heart disease (CHD), the authors found that "CHD risk was 40–60% higher in those who consumed 5 or more cups of coffee daily compared to those who did not drink coffee." CHD occurs when plaque accumulates in the coronary arteries, limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart and possibly resulting in a heart attack.

Now, 5 cups a day is surely more than even many coffee fans can handle. But if Larsson was writing semi-autobiographically, Kamp may be right: there was no dark conspiracy at work in the author's death; his (coffee) drinking habit may simply have caught up with him.

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