Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Camilla Läckberg. The Preacher (HarperCollins, 2009)

The Preacher is the second novel in Läckberg’s Fjällbacka-series. The Swedish original was published as Predikanten in 2004. The series began with Isprinsessan in 2003; (English The Ice Princess in 2008) and the latest, ninth novel called Lejontämjaren (literally The Lion Tamer) was published in 2014 (English The Ice Child in 2016). The books were made into a television series in 2012. Camilla Läckberg (1974- ) has also published stand-alone novels, cook books and a series of children’s books inspired by her third child.

Fjällbacka is a beautiful, old Swedish fishing village with narrow cobbled streets and colourful, wooden houses. It is making most of its fame as the place where Camilla Läckberg grew up and where she chose to set her crime novels. For 150 Swedish Krona you can join a “Camilla Läckberg Murder Mystery Tour.” Fjällbacka’s other claim to fame is Ingrid Bergman's visit there in 1957. The Fjällbacka Welcome-brochure for 2016 has the two glamorous women on its cover.

In the Fjällbacka-series, writer Erica Falck and police officer Patrik Hedström fall in love, get married and start a family. Domesticity and murder exist side by side. Patrik kisses Erica’s baby-bump: “Be nice to Mamma, and I’ll be home soon.” (p4) as he heads off to investigate a woman’s body found in a crevice of a rocky outcrop. Beneath it, lie two other, much older, bodies. Patrik goes to work and the heavily pregnant Erica stays at home dealing with unwelcome summer visitors (pp.18, 28, 45, 51, 80, 233,256, 291).

The English paperback version of The Preacher carries an endorsement from Literary Review: “Chilly, deceptive and lucid, just like the icy environment it describes.” This novel is set in the middle of a July heatwave, where the police go to work in shorts (pp22, 112), fans whir (p283) and tourists sun-bathe (p211). Regardless of the reviewer’s opinion on the novel, please note that Nordic countries do have summers, too; they are not icy year round.

The murders in The Preacher are gruesome and cruel, the agony of victims’ families is deep and bitter, and Erica and Patrik maintain their bubble of cosy co-habitation (pp45, 142, 151, 201) “curled up on the sofa together” (p112), “fixing” a hot chocolate (p109) or “fixing” “something special for dinner (p45).

This contrast between the main characters’ contented domesticity and the homicidal horror outside their home is central to Läckberg’s fictional world. Her hero is well-adjusted and happy; as Erica congratulates herself: “At least she had chosen the right father for the child … His steadfast calm and confidence offset her own restlessness” (p142). “Patrik was basically an optimist.” (p201) There are no signs of the traditional detective hero's drunken, guilt-ridden Angst in Patrik Hedström. This is  refreshingly different among the usual emotionally damaged detectives in fiction. It also means that Patrik suffers from the complaint of all thoroughly good fictional heroes: he is the dullest character in the book. At least we have, for once, a detective hero with a reasonably-sized ego.

Although the murders in The Preacher are ultimately solved through forensic analysis, the focus and interest in the tale is in understanding family dynamics and individual psychology. The investigation centres on three generations of the Hult family: “Wherever we turn, we run into the Hult family.” (p273) and proceeds by a gradual uncovering of family members’ inner workings and motivations.

Läckberg offers a portrait of a community with simple psychology. There is an assumption that the values displayed by the narrator are shared by the reader. This is evident in the way humour is based entirely on making fun of selfish, lazy, self-important characters (pp.35, 79, 150-1, 214, 219, 233). 

The most powerful force in the community is not the fear of law and order but of social shame and judgment by one’s peers. Social pressures dominate people’s lives, whether it is Erica who cannot refuse her guests: “hospitality was like a natural law” (p233; also p78) or Johannes Hult’s family: “For twenty-four years the town had discredited their family, but now everyone else would feel the shame.” (p107)

An unkempt, overweight woman weeps after her lost youthful beauty (p16) and an insecure woman chooses a safe marriage over a passionate affair (p330). These characters, as well as ambitious social climbers, alpha-male police officers, pompous paterfamilias and rebellious teenagers, are saved from being cardboard stereotypes by the author’s (if not the narrator’s) sympathy for them. They are all depicted with a degree of warmth and fondness and they have human qualities we recognize.

While the psychology of the crime is sound in Läckberg’s plotting, there are very clumsy clues in the detective tale. A DNA analysis of semen on one of the victims helps to narrow down the list of suspects (p293, also p396). Why there should be semen on the victim is a mystery; there is no indication that the murderer had any sexual motivation. Patrik discovers a notebook with a full confession by the culprit in a secret compartment of a desk: “Having never missed a single episode of Antiques Roadshow on TV, his thoughts turned naturally to secret compartments when he looked at the old piece of furniture.” (p389) There is no indication in the story previously that this notebook exists. Lucky Patrik!

In an atrociously translated section of her English web page, Läckberg gives advice on crime writing and recommends plot devices for creating “excitement.” Läckberg uses a couple of them well to pace her story: “changing the external environment” (i.e. changes in the setting) and “replacing internal environment” (i.e. changes in the narrative point of view). But there are severe problems with a couple of other techniques she recommends. In The Preacher, there are several points where we are told that a character has an idea or information important to the case, but it is not revealed to the reader (pp21, 92-3, 203, 255, 317, 357, 373). Läckberg calls this technique either “making suggestions” (giving the reader an indication or a partial truth) or “cliffhangers.” On her website she gives two examples of cliffhangers from The Preacher.

The first example is an awaited call from the forensics team: “But never in Patrik’s wildest imagination could he have predicted what he heard next.” (p357) This sets up high expectations in the reader. In the next chapter we learn that what Patrik "heard next" was that there was no DNA match (p365) with any of the suspects. While this is very disappointing for the detective, this result was hardly beyond his “wildest imagination.” The heightened expectation is not matched with the following revelation.

The second example is the end of a scene with parents waiting for news about their missing daughter: “Patrik had an icy feeling in his stomach that… they might be waiting in vain. Somebody had picked up Jenny. Somebody who did not have good intentions.” (pp165-6). If a girl goes missing in a crime novel, it is quite reasonable for the detective to fear that she has become a victim of a crime. Here the expectation is too low and predictable for this ending to be called a cliffhanger. 

The use of “suggestions” and “cliffhangers” in The Preacher is awkward: it is obvious that the author is trying to increase suspense by leaving the reader hanging. Läckberg struggles to get the set-up (the cliffhanger or the suggestion) to match the revelation that follows; every failure to do this creates a little jolt of disappointment for the reader.

The Preacher has workmanlike plotting. It has consistent and realistically mundane characters. Creating believable characters is Läckberg’s strong point. She has a very easy-going style. Her language has few embellishments; no metaphors, few adverbs. Läckberg tells the story without any visible philosophical or political message. This makes her novel very easy to digest. On her website Läckberg makes the point that there is no magic in crime writing; “Every man” can do it (the Swedish original means “every one” can do it – it is a very bad translation). She is right, but she also underestimates her own effort. Läckberg’s novels are good examples of proficient story-telling in all its simplicity.