Lackberg, Camilla - 'The Stranger' (translated by Steven T Murray)
This is the fourth of Lackberg's extremely ('Nine million books sold') popular series set in the rural Swedish region of Tanum, featuring the intuitive police investigator Patrik Hedstrom and his team.
A fatal traffic accident on the road to Fjallbacka is initially put down to drink. However, the driver, local woman Marit Kaspersen, was not a drinker. She lived an entirely blameless life with her lover Kerstin and daughter Sofie, and her only enemy seemed to have been her embittered ex-husband Ola. Patrik suspects foul play and begins to investigate.
Meanwhile, a new reality show Sodding Tanum descends on town amongst a media circus. The show takes survivors of other reality series and films them pursuing 'ordinary' lives in a small town. The cast is (perhaps stereotypically, more probably realistically) narcissistic and confrontational. Regular sessions with psychologist Lars, husband of new police team member Hanna, do little to control them, especially in the face of a production crew determined to keep tensions high. Soon bickering leads to drunken brawling at a party. And then the cosmetically enhanced 'Barbie' - real name Lillemor Persson - is found dead.
Media interest in the reality-show murder means that Patrik and his team neglect Marit in favour of investigating Barbie's death. However, neither case moves anywhere fast until Patrik half-remembers somethinghe heard at a police training day several years earlier. Even then, the resolution proves to be more complex, and more disturbing, than he imagined.
The first thing I noticed about THE STRANGER was the pace with which Lackberg introduces characters. By page 12, we have met the main investigator Patrik Hedstrom and his colleagues in the police Annika and Martin, ambitious newcomer Hanna, Patrik's wife-to-be Erica, her troubled sister Anna, and three children Maja, Adrian and Emma, five members of the town council, and reality TV starlets Jonna and Barbie. This is a lot to process, and assumes a lot of familiarity with Lackberg's regular cast - in terms of rapid cuts it is similar to the establishing shots of a TV show.
The next thing to mention is that a lot of this book - and it sticks out a mile - is concerned with the domestic lives of the series characters. There's wedding planning, pregnancy, childlessness, rows with in-laws, a house sale, depression, dieting and courtship. These scenes are written with affection and followers of the series will doubtless enjoy seeing the characters grow and overcome their personal demons.
They form a counterpoint to the crime story, which I think is the weaker part of THE STRANGER. Lackberg uses two slightly annoying narrative tricks. The first is italicised text at the beginning of each chapter. The second is that she conceals things from the reader:
"He sat for a moment in thought after he clicked off the call. Then he rang another number and spent the next five minutes talking with someone who sounded very confused by what he had to say."
Sticking with the TV analogy, THE STRANGER felt more like a mid-series episode, enjoyable enough, but concerned more with character development, than a dramatic series opener or finale. Is there too much 'soap'? Based on a page-count of the first 50 pages, just over a third of the text is domestic and unrelated to the crime plot. But frankly, these scenes ring far truer than the murders. There are signs that the plot of the next book, THE HIDDEN CHILD, develops out of the lives of the main characters, which I imagine will make it a far stronger proposition.
By the way, for newcomers (and I am one) a lack of familiarity with the regular cast will not impair your reading of this book.
THE STRANGER was originally published as THE GALLOWS BIRD (a better title to my mind).
Rich Westwood, England