Review: Camilla Lackberg – Buried Angels

Buried AngelsCamilla Lackberg was one of the early Scandinavian crime writers that I read. Her debut, The Ice Princess, is, in my opinion, an excellent novel. As the series developed, however, I stopped reading the books. The focus on the domestic life of the protagonist alongside the crime story wasn’t particularly to my taste. However, I had been tipped off by a Twitter friend that Lackberg had returned to form with her latest novel, Buried Angels. And he was right.

In 1974 a family in Fjällbacka, Sweden disappeared leaving only the baby daughter, Ebba alone in the house. The case has remained a mystery unforgotten by the local community. The adult Ebba returns to the property with her husband to renovate the house and mourn the loss of their child. However, their house is subject of an arson attack within days of their arrival. Detective Patrick Hedstrom is assigned to the investigation but has to contend with his wife Erica’s fascination with the tale of the family’s disappearance.

There is something compelling about the missing. A disappearance can leave confusion and loss for generations and Buried Angels mines the sense of mystery relating to the family’s vanishing. There was an overlap in a couple of the characters’ story which made parts of the narrative a little claustrophobic. Two of them have lost children, for example. However, the domesticity that had become slightly irritating seemed in proportion to a narrative that focuses on family and their dysfunctional relationships. In many ways the book is an update on the traditional mystery. There’s a confined area, a strong cast of suspects and a big reveal at the end.

The book’s strength is in the mystery that is pulled out until the last chapter or so. The writing, as usual, is clear and sharp and I managed to warm to Erica as a character once more. Lackberg is definitely back on form.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy. The translation was by Tiina Nunally.

Review: Barry Forshaw – Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV

nordic noirBarry Forshaw is the UK’s expert on Scandinavian crime fiction. His excellent Death in a Cold Climate is a book that I often dip into if I need information about a Scandinavian author that I’m unfamiliar with. Now he has produced Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, a brief but very entertaining overview of not only Nordic crime novels but also of many of the Scandinavian TV and films that are now appearing on our screens.

The book opens with a look at the beginnings of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the influence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and other early writers on the genre. The following chapters then assess the two great writers Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson and how they led the way for many of their contemporaries and began the craze for Nordic Noir. There is plenty of food for thought here. Camilla Lackberg, for example, has a significant following but has never quite reached the popularity of say, Jo Nesbo. Forshaw comes up with some convincing explanations for this, not least the intimate setting of Fjallbacka which, although harks back to Christie’s St Mary’s Mead, doesn’t have the international feel of Nesbo’s books. Nesbo himself dominates the Norway chapter, although there are also plenty of other writers discussed, including the excellent Anne Holt and Thomas Enger.

The chapters on the other Nordic countries Iceland, Finland and Denmark were particularly interesting as I’m less familiar with some of the writers and you get a strong sense of both the personality of the authors and the essence of their works. The latter part of the book assesses the impact of  Nordic Noir in TV and Film and identifies some emerging writers to look out for which will provide a useful point of reference in the future.

For a short book (around 160 pages) this packs a lot in and shows Forshaw’s knowledge of the subject. His interviews with many of the authors form the basis of the book and there are some amusing anecdotes and asides, including an interview with Henning Mankell who spots mice in an upmarket hotel in central London. But you also get a sense of the author’s preferences and his views on the merits of different writers. So there is plenty to delight fans of Nordic Noir and also those who want an informative but succinct introduction to the genre.

Do crime and religion mix?

I’ve read two books recently which had a strong religious setting.  The first was Evil Intent by Kate Charles billed as a ‘modern ecclesiastical mystery’ where the central character Callie Anson has started a new job as curate at All Saint’s Church in Paddington. The murder of a virulent opponent of women priests, Father Jonah Adimola, thrusts Callie into the spotlight and her religious mentor, Frances Cherry becomes chief suspect. The second book, published in 1966, was The Religious Body by Catherine Aird and is set inside St Anselm’s convent. Sister Anne is found murdered at the bottom of the cellar steps and Inspector Sloan of Berebury CID is called in to investigate. Suspicion falls on the entire convent, where every member is living under an assumed name and many have an unrevealed past.

I have to say that I enjoyed both books. The religious settings meant that the pool of suspects were largely (although not exclusively) confined to the respective church communites. This gave both writers the opportunity to examine in-depth the lives of people for whom the religious life is literally a vocation. Churches also, of course, make a marvellous setting for a murder. The creepy atmosphere, solid stone walls and chilly temperature combine to provide an ideal setting for a clandestine murder.

But there is a downside. There are so many vicars in Evil Intent that I kept losing track of who each character was. There is also the tendency to cliché. Is it really so easy to categorise, for example, religious sisters as neatly as Catherine Aird does? This led me to wonder how many readers would be put off by a religious setting.

I think I should say that I love them. From Cadfael to William of Baskerville, Father Anselm to Alexander Seaton, a cleric or even better ex-cleric is usually a good bet for me. And it seems that I’m not alone. There is a website, Clerical Detectives, that identifies 250 detectives in crime fiction with a religious background from authors as diverse as Edward D Hoch, Faye Kellerman and James Patterson. So there is clearly a market out there for these kinds of books.

But the vast majority of people in the UK don’t go to church. Are they less likely to buy a book with a religious theme than a secular one? Or perhaps people don’t care. Cadfael, for example, which is very popular in UK could perhaps be classified more as historical crime fiction than religious. But I have noticed in my internet surfing that some crime fiction websites in the US have a ‘no religion’ policy when accepting books for review. I’m not sure of the reason for this – unless perhaps there are books proselytising under the guise of crime fiction. Perhaps someone could enlighten me.

I’ve also noticed, however, that some of the excellent books coming out of Scandinavia often features non-mainstream religious groups. I’m thinking of Asa Larsson’s The Savage Altar or Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher which both look at the appropriation of religion for criminal intent. It seems to be a reflection of an aspect of Scandinavian life that writers think worth exploring.

What are your thoughts on this. Would a religious setting tempt or discourage you? Or does it make no difference?

I read Evil Intent after an excellent review of the book at Reactions to Reading where there also a dicussion on religious cults here.