Book review: The Scent of Almonds and other stories, by Camilla Läckberg

29 05 2017

Camilla Läckberg is a Swedish crime writer whose novels, set in and around the fishing villa of Fjällbacka and featuring the investigative duo of Erica Falck (writer) and Patrik Hedström (police officer), have become one of the country’s most successful fictional exports. I’ve previously reviewed Läckberg’s first novel, The Ice Princess, here.


The Scent of Almonds and other stories (Mord och mandeldoft, 2013, translated by Tiina Nunnally) is built, as its title hints, around Läckberg’s novella The Scent of Almonds, to which three much shorter stories have been appended so as to yield a slightly less slim volume.

In the title novella, police officer Martin Molin (a colleague of Patrik Hedström) is trapped for a storm-wracked weekend in a boutique resort on an island off the mainland. It’s a weekend from hell, spent with the family from hell: not his own, but that of Lisette Liljecrona, to whom he has rather unwittingly found himself classed as ‘boyfriend’. The family dynamics are so appallingly awful that it’s almost a relief when wealthy patriarch Ruben, Lisette’s grandfather, is fatally poisoned during dinner—at least now Martin has a role to fall back on, that of investigating officer, to distance himself from the argumentative clan. But Martin is a reluctant Poirot, who lacks the ability to secure the crime scene, to dust for fingerprints, or to communicate with his superiors; how will he pinpoint the murderer?

The novella has a distinctly old-fashioned feel about it, which is not solely due to the isolated setting and the lack of cellphone reception: the range of possible suspects are introduced in the opening scenes, and it rolls from there, in a story that seems to channel both Conan Doyle and Christie. Läckberg revels in her descriptions of the storm’s severity and in her depictions of the Liljecrona family’s utter lack of redeeming features: one almost wants them all to be guilty. Martin isn’t a particularly engaging protagonist (which I think is a conscious decision on the author’s part, so as to provide contrast with the absent Patrik), but the story’s atmosphere more-or-less carries it.

The three short stories are all also rather old-fashioned, in that each one pretty much revolves around a single point or idea—which, I suppose, is the classical definition of the short story form. In ‘An Elegant Death’, heiress Lisbeth has been bashed to death by an unknown assailant in her second-hand clothes shop; in ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’, Malin’s suspicions of her partner Lars’ behaviour grow with premonitions that she is about to suffer the same fate—drowning at sea—which befell Lars’ first partner Elisabeth; in ‘The Widows’ Café’, Marianne provides a special, and not exactly legal, service for the community’s domestic abuse victims. These stories all fulfil the requirements—the setup, the fulcrum, the twist—and yet they feel too constrained by their artifice: they’re too short to properly unsettle the reader in the manner that Läckberg’s longer fiction can, wherein she can get thoroughly stuck into the genuine horrors of domestic life.


Book review(s): another two Swedish murder mysteries

28 06 2016

This shows disconcerting signs of becoming a habit. But no matter …

I could, I suppose, establish the parallels between the two books under review here, much as I did for Lifetime and The Savage Altar last time around. But aside from a mutilated female victim, a not-exactly-by-the-book police investigation of the crime, a multiple-protagonist narrative and a solidly Swedish setting, there’s not a lot in common between these two books. No offhand Moomin references in these ones, either (although a reclusive, internationally-known retired children’s writer—that’s a retired writer for children, not a writer for retired children—does feature as a significant supporting character in The Disappeared).


The Ice Princess is the first novel by Camilla Läckberg (Isprinsessan, 2004, translated by Stephen T Murray), and introduces the crime-solving duo of Erica Falck, writer, and Patrik Hedstrom, detective, a pairing that has since been reprised in several subsequent books by Läckberg. The action in The Ice Princess is largely set in the western Swedish coastal fishing-village-turned-tourist-destination of Fjällbacka, and opens with the discovery of the body of Erica’s former close friend Alexandra Wijkner, a well-connected art gallery director, in a tub of frozen, blood-infused bathwater in the house Wijkner had been using as a weekend retreat. Alex’s wrists had been slashed, but there’s no suicide note; and if no-one knows of a reason why Alex should have taken her own life, nor are there any apparent motives for murder … until Erica starts looking closely into Alex’s past, and its interrelationship with her own.

This is a busy novel, full of clearly-delineated characters, many of whom get a guernsey as occasional ‘viewpoint characters’ within the narrative, though Falck and Hedstrom are the chief protagonists. It’s also a novel which is in no hurry to concentrate on the crime: there’s a lot of backstory, a lot of inner life, a lot of character exploration, all of which adds useful depth and promotes our investment in the protags. In particular, Erica’s frustration with her sister Anna’s ongoing subservience to a domineering husband (who has ambitions to force the sale of Erica’s and Anna’s deceased parents’ house, largely for his own monetary gain) is a useful additional facet to a finely-chiselled story. Läckberg does a nice line in blending the engagingly mundane with the grotesque, and only occasionally slips into the territory of two-dimensionality (most notably, I felt, with her uncharacteristically blunt portrayal of Patrik’s bumbling, self-important boss). The motive which ultimately emerges from the frozen bathwater is appropriately unsettling and logically coherent, and Erica and Patrik are a combination worth exploring further.


Kristina Ohlsson‘s The Disappeared (Änglavakter, 2001, translated by Marlaine Delargy; the Swedish title translates to ‘Guardian Angels’) is the third in Ohlsson’s ‘Fredrika Bergman’ series, in which the protagonist is an investigative analyst working with the Stockholm police. It opens, naturally enough, with the discovery of a body—or of most of a body; for, whoever the young woman was, the absence of her head and hands preclude rapid identification. It transpires soon enough, though, that the body which has for two years awaited its exhumation from a stand of trees on the outskirts of the Stockholm suburb of Midsommarkransen is that of Rebecca Trolle, a student at Uppsala whose disappearance has been the subject of a continuing investigation led by Fredrika’s police supervisor Alex Recht. The discovery of Rebecca’s body breathes—I hope you will pardon the expression—new life into the investigation, and Fredrika, keen to return to work after parental leave, is brought onto the team; but after two years the police are still unable to determine any motive for Trolle’s brutal slaying, and when, finally, the clues do start to emerge, they point in a direction which places Bergman in a highly conflicted predicament. Who can she trust?

Of the four Swedish crime novels I’ve read over the past two months, The Disappeared is the most solidly identifiable as a ‘police procedural’, principally because its main viewpoint characters—Bergman, Recht, and their colleague Peder Rydh—are all involved with the police investigation. Perhaps because of this, it has a flavour of methodicality, and sometimes seems to repeat itself, as an item of information is first revealed to one team member, and then to another. Nonetheless, it’s impressively detailed (as dead end after dead end is explored and rejected, while Bergman’s home life is thrown into turmoil), and the human elements in its various story arcs are sympathetically and effectively rendered. And the murders—for it soon becomes apparent that Trolle’s is not the only body among the Midsommarkransen trees—are satisfyingly opaque, if ultimately comprehensible.