Camilla Lackberg is a new Swedish author for me and I think what drew me to this collection (comprising of a novella and 3 short stories written between 2006 and 2012) were the parallels between her work and Golden Age detective fiction, which is clear to see from the early pages of ‘The Scent of Almonds’, where a family Christmas spent on an island takes a deadly turn for the worse…. (No prizes for guessing which Christie novel is being nodded to here)
The Scent of Almonds
It is a week until Christmas and police officer, Martin Molin has been asked by his girlfriend Lisette to spend Christmas with her and her family at a hotel on an island called Valö. Molin is not entirely keen on the idea as he doesn’t think the relationship is going anywhere and prepares himself for getting through an awkward weekend. Things do not pick up when he arrives as within the Liljecrona family there are mountains of underlying tension which is bubbling beneath the surface, occasionally breaking out in barbed comments. There is Lisette’s mother and father, Harald and Britten, Lisette’s uncle and aunt, Gustav and Vivi and their grown up children Bernard and Miranda. Finally there is Lisette’s older brother Mattis and her Grandpa Ruben, a very rich man and it is his money which fuels the animosity within the family as they all want their share of it. Yet at dinner Ruben shows he is no push over. In fact after interrogating his family members as to how successful his investments in them are, he proceeds to inform that he has disinherited them all and only needs to sign his newly made will. But this outburst may have been too much for him, as he has spasms and dies. However, Molin is quick to realise that his death was not a natural one when he gets a whiff of almonds…
As you might suspect, due to the snow storm, the phone lines are broken and they cannot get back to the mainland. With no outside support Molin attempts to investigate the death alone, yet it seems there is much that Lisette’s family do not want to say. Nevertheless this murder has cranked up the tension so much that various members begin to crack and turn on each other, allowing us a closer look at what is going on inside the Liljecrona family. It is very apt when it is said of Vivi that: ‘with a vacant expression she stared at the smouldering fire as she sensed disaster approaching like a speeding train. Old secrets had begun to stir, like a monster lurking below the surface.’ It is not long before one family member becomes a convenient scape goat. Yet it is the second death which really mounts up the panic within the group as they begin to doubt how well they know each other.
Although there are parallels between Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) and this story, it is not overdone and is only really applicable in the setup of the story and in the fact right and wrong are not so simple to decide in both stories. Lackberg’s characterisation skills are superb as I liked how the characters were not easy to pin down and first impressions are highly unreliable in this case. Moreover, we get to see the characters through their own thoughts, as well as their actions, speech and other characters’ opinions of them. This means we can assess the characters from different angles and perspectives. The final solution is clever and not one I expected. My only niggle with the story is that I think the ending could have been a bit longer as part of me thinks it would have been nice to see how the solution affected the characters in more detail. Though in another way I can see why Lackberg took the approach she did, the abrupt nature of the ending mirroring the un-impacted self-interested characters, who are now perhaps looking towards the money they hope to get from Ruben.
An Elegant Death
A few weeks ago Lisbeth Wåhlberg opened a vintage clothes shop, yet she has now been found murdered, bludgeoned to death in the back room. Molin and his partner Patrik Hedström are on case. The narrative also casts an eye on Hedström’s wife, Erica and it is interesting to see how she becomes involved in the case and how her approach to Wåhlberg’s daughters differs from her husbands. Yet in a way this is quite a female focused story as not only do we learn more about the daughters through Erica but another woman also brings to light an important piece of information in regards to the case, information which could be considered as quite feminine and therefore not within the male police detectives’ scope. Like in the previous story money has a bad effect on people in this case and I liked how the solution overturns assumptions made at the beginning of the tale. The final twist is also priceless, when wrong does not get to triumph.
Dreaming of Elizabeth
This story takes place on a boat (another claustrophobic and contained space, like the hotel in ‘The Scent of Almonds’). On this boat is a troubled middle aged woman named Malin, (whose thoughts we are privy to in the story) and her husband Lars. Their relationship is not in the best of shape, undermined by a shared loss and it seems like Lars has secrets of his own. Although a short story Lackberg is good at getting to the heart of things, succinctly describing their complex relationship: ‘though the silence was so heavy with all that was not being said that they might as well have been screaming at each other.’ This boating holiday was supposed to improve their relationship but Malin begins to wonder whether it is in fact doing the complete opposite: namely giving her husband a chance to murder her! The events which follow did remind me slightly of Frances Iles’ Before the Fact (1932). Malin’s mind continually reverts back to thinking of Lars first wife and her unfortunate death. As their boat heads into a storm Malin is convinced one way or another, one of them isn’t coming back…
Again in this story Lackberg shows her skill at providing an original twist, to a plot which we can easily think is so familiar and the ending of this story was not quite how I expected (which is a good thing!)
The Widows’ Café
This centres on Marianne, who three years ago opened The Widows’ Café, after she herself became a widow. Interspersed with this tale is a separate narrative comprised of different couples, whose marriages are of the abusive kind. Such suffering can seem inescapable, but there is always the Widows’ Special… This is a story where you think you have it all sussed but once more Lackberg concludes this tale with an unexpected surprise.
On the whole as my rating below shows I really enjoyed this collection. Lackberg produces a number of satisfying twists and I found the commonality between the killers across the stories interesting. Though to prevent spoilers I can say no more. Something I appreciated with this collection is that although the stories are quite dark and do not show humans at their best, there is not an oppressive depressing atmosphere which is something I struggled with when reading books from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö Martin Beck series. Although these are only short tales Lackberg is able to create worlds where relationships are complicated and messy and there is moral ambiguity, especially in ‘The Scent of Almonds’ and ‘The Widows’ Special’. Looking at the collection as whole, they do not tend to be male dominated stories and women are shown in various roles and positions on both sides of the law. There is also a timelessness to the stories which I liked. This is a collection I would definitely recommend, with ‘The Scent of Almonds’ and ‘Dreaming of Elizabeth’ as my favourites.