Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: Camilla Läckberg's Erica Falck series is superb

Review by Susan Grigsby

Summer has arrived in California's high desert a little early this year, complete with an Excessive Heat Warning of triple digit temperatures. Due to the wildfire up in the San Bernardino Mountains, the sky is a milky white today, which is a change from the brown and orange hues the smoke took on initially. Sadly, even though the sun's light is diffused throughout the white sky, the temperatures are still exceeding 105º.

So, it must be time to visit Sweden again. When there is an uncontrolled wildfire in the middle of an excessive heat wave, during a record breaking fifteen year drought, don't all thoughts inevitably turn to a crisp, clear spring day in Stockholm?
We were there in April, over a decade ago, and I have never forgotten how beautiful the city was, nor how quick were its residents to spend this first beautiful spring day outside. Office workers sat on piers dockside to eat lunch, dangling shoeless feet over the side. School children climbed over statues on the Riddarholmen. It was one of our favorite visits. And we had never heard of Stieg Larsen.

Another Swedish novelist who has hit American shores with a bang is Camilla Läckberg, originally of Fjällbacka, a small fishing village on the west coast of Sweden. A storyteller from childhood, she attended the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg and became an economist when she grew up. It was while working in Stockholm as an economist that her husband, mother and brother sent her to a writing course, Writing Crime Fiction. There she discovered her true vocation and began writing her first book, The Ice Princess.
To date she has written eight more in the series set in her home town, with five available in the States, and one that can be pre-ordered for September 8. Kindle owners who participate in the Kindle Unlimited program can read some of her earlier books for free, as well as listen to discounted audible versions. A look at the first three are below the fold.

The Ice Princess
Published by Pegasus
June 15, 2010 (First published in 2003)
393 pages

Erica Falck, a Stockholm writer of women's biographies, has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka, to settle her parent's estate. The body of the her childhood best friend has been found dead in the frozen water of her bathtub, her wrists slit in an apparent suicide.
Erica had not seen Alex in years, since her family suddenly moved away from Fjällbacka when the girls were in school, but the grieving parents ask Erica to write a commemorative piece about their daughter. As she explores Alex's life, she finds reason to believe that there was more to her death than a suicide.
Also working on Alex's death is local policeman, Patrik Hedström, who had a high school crush on Erica that has never quite died out. Patrik has that niggling sense that something was just not right about Alex's "suicide."
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Erica's sister Anna, who is married to Lucas, an abusive, controlling man who wants the sisters to sell their parent's house so that he, Anna and their children can move to England, where he was born.
The Preacher
Published by Pegasus
April 27, 2011 (First published in 2004)
432 pages

In book number two of this series, Erica is sidelined by pregnancy during the very warm summer that attracts houseguests to the home that she and Patrik now share in Fjällbacka. When a young boy discovers the dead body of a woman, and two skeletons are found below that body, Patrik cuts short his holiday and returns to work to investigate.
The two skeletons belong to a couple of young women who disappeared from the area in 1979 while on a camping trip. The young man, from a dysfunctional family led by a preacher/patriarch, who was the leading suspect in that crime, committed suicide, leaving the police with precious few leads.
The Stonecutter
Published by Pegasus
May 1, 2012 (First published in 2005)
489 pages

According to Pegasus, Camilla Läckberg's US publisher:
The remote resort town of Fjällbacka has seen more than its share of tragedies, but a little girl found in a fisherman's net may be the worst yet - especially when the postmortem reveals that this was a methodical murder, not an accidental drowning.
Local detective Patrik Hedström has just become a father. It’s his grim task to discover who could be behind the murder of a child both he and his partner Erica knew well. What he does not know is how this case will reach into the dark heart of Fjällbacka, spanning generations, ripping aside its idyllic façade, perhaps forever.
Fjällbacka indeed has a dark heart, and this is Läckberg's third "ripping aside" of "its idyllic façade, perhaps forever." One wonders how many other hidden criminal hearts this small fishing village can hide.

I confess, I was finally defeated by this one, tired perhaps of trying to keep straight the huge cast of characters that Läckberg introduces, all with a backstory, and all with hard to pronounce, or remember, Swedish names. If I had been reading instead of listening, it may have been easier.
As it was, the constantly shifting point of view from one character to another, made it even more difficult for me to keep track of whose mind I was in as the changes were made rather abruptly. It was not helped by the narrator, David Thorn, whose voice, though pleasant, did not seem to be able to keep up with all of the different characters and personalize each one enough to make this an easy book to listen to.
But there is enough in the series to make me want to try again, and the narrator for the next two books, at least, is Simon Vance. So I haven't given up on Camilla Läckberg yet; her skills have improved over the course of the three books. The stories have become more coherent, past and present events are more clearly integrated into the novels and the two main protagonists take on more depth. But still, I found my mind drifting as the Erika or Patrik would discover a clue and pocket it, not to reveal it until the end of the book. Not quite cheating, but tiresome all the same. Also, I never felt that any character that I particularly cared about faced any serious threat.
If you like a romance mixed in with your mystery, this series might appeal to you. Patrik is a refreshingly normal human being, anxious to escape his girlfriend's increasingly uncomfortable pregnancy for a murder investigation. The fact that he feels guilty about his escape, doesn't slow him down much, leaving her alone to cope with some particularly unpleasant house guests. But he is neither an alcoholic nor a depressive, so that is a nice change for a Scandinavian detective.
A best-selling author in Sweden, she has been compared to Agatha Christie, while being acclaimed as a master of psychological suspense, and has seen her work adapted for television as well as the movies.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here