A Mystery and a Crime

Camilla Läckberg Is Not the Next Stieg Larsson

QuestionNow, here’s a mystery for you.

I wrote this piece in February 2011, and until this year, it has faithfully backed up with all the other blog posts. But a routine end-of-month check on my “404” files indicated no one could access it.

So I went through my post list … and found it had disappeared. Completely.

Now, I could be conspiracy theorist about this. But it is equally likely something went wrong with software, with the server, or with me.

Instead, I’ll demonstrate the power of back-ups – everywhere, and out of clouds and others’ servers especially – and just re-post it (minus the YouTube embedded video, which no longer is available). Because, you see, I always back up everything, everywhere.

My opinion on this book hasn’t changed one iota. In fact, I find many problems that plagued my reading of Camilla Läckberg informed the literature discussion at Nordic Cool 2013, which should raise questions for many of us in literary circles. Why do we encourage “dumbing down” in approaching books? What do we lose by encouraging readers merely to be passive consumers? And why, especially, do professionals engaged with texts on a direct level just plod along without questioning, even challenging? Is it really the pressure of deadlines, or is it more about our own egos?

Since my encounter with this book, I have read a great deal of other Scandinavian crime fiction, which I will write about soon. Much of it is wonderful. Some of it has potential. All of it is better than this.

Something to look forward to.

EditingIn the midst of my fascination with the transformative power of technology in Tunisia and Egypt, I have encountered a problem with my NOOK.

I can’t burn really bad books. At least, not without destroying a $150 piece of technology and the reading investment it contains.

Similarly, I cannot abandon a book to the whims of a bored commuter by dropping it on the shelf my local train station provides for such charity or by leaving it on the train seat. Nor can I try to recoup some of my investment by selling it through Amazon Marketplace or Half.com or a yard sale.

The best I can do is delete a file.

This denies me the visceral satisfaction that might have been my sole reward for making it through Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, the first of her (heaven help us) seven crime novels in print worldwide. So I have to seek other means to get my revenge.

Such as reviewing it.

Last summer, in the midst of the Stieg Larsson summer-reading craze, the New York Times, Washington Post, Library Journal, and Huffington Post were among many in the media to engage the question of what Americans were to do after finishing the Millennium Trilogy. Basing their searches mostly on sales and Scandinavian writers, it was easy for these journalists to light upon Camilla Läckberg. With 3 million books sold in Sweden alone, she is the sixth most popular novelist in Europe. The movie and TV offers are building, and U.S. publishers took a gamble on her with a hefty advance.

Of course, in the United States a purchaser doesn’t see what is evident in Sweden or Norway: that Läckberg’s novels are “kiosk literature,” as a Norwegian friend calls it. They’re the type of pulp read that makes up the paperback junk food of Walmart book shelves, train station newsagents, and pharmacies. And U.S. reviewers, being concerned more with image than with content, have tended more toward questioning why Scandinavian writing becomes popular than toward probing the writing itself.

The mystery to me is: how on earth did Läckberg make it into print in the first place?

The crime is more obvious: the laziness of the editors in handling her work, and of many reviewers after The Ice Princess did make it into print. (A happy exception in the latter case is Magnus Persson’s commentary in Svenska Dagbladet, which notes the many editorial errors as well as the lightweight quality of her blissfully few stabs at social commentary.)

I suspect some answers to the mystery lie in the combination of Scandinavian reading habits (they generally read anything, voraciously), publisher marketing in transportation hubs before the advent of e-readers, the absence of gloom and serious psychological problems among the characters (if we discount amnesia and narcissism), and the happy placement of the series in Fjällbacka, a village of a few over 800 on the western coast of Sweden near the Norwegian border. Village mysteries can provide a welcome alternative to the cosmopolitan activity of capitals such as Stockholm and Oslo, with more scope for character investigation.

Unfortunately, while some characters have potential in The Ice Princess (Isprinsessen), they are dwarfed by the self-absorption of the central female character and the writer’s preference for burbling out a combination of Bridget Jones’ Diary-type romance and criticism of interior decorating in a small town, rather than plotting a good crime story.

Läckberg’s female writer-snoop, Erica Falck, spends the first third of the book preoccupied with her Weight Watchers points, her parents’ death (which is not the crime and serves little function in the book), and her inability to get very far on her biography of Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lägerlof. That Erica finds the body of her childhood friend Alexandra frozen into a bathtub causes her little preoccupation at first, engaging her attention chiefly when the victim’s parents ask her to write an obituary.

This erratic interest in Alex’s death dominates until Erica acquires a policeman boyfriend halfway through the story. For instance, when Erica is interrupted while illegally poking around in her friend’s childhood home, she not only lifts a news article that she forgets about immediately but also notes the disappearance of something from the room with “Oh well, it would probably come to her later” (p. 61). (She remembers the decor well enough, though.)

But if the crime story lags dreadfully, the flaws take off immediately. The reader gets quite a headache trying to figure out when Erica last saw Alex – and whether she has even met Alex’s husband, Henrik:

As adults [Erica and Alex] had been strangers to each other. … According to what Erica had heard through the grapevine, life had been kind to Alex. … She was married to a man who was both successful and nice. … (p. 12)

She was received by a man she realized at once had to be Henrik Wijkner. He was unabashedly good-looking, and Erica was glad she had devoted a little extra effort to her appearance before she left home. …

“Ericka Falck.”

“Henrik Wijkner. We met last summer as I recall.” (p. 25)

Did they? Well, I don’t think they did. It’s apparently been 25 years since Erica saw anything of Alex. Two pages later in the conversation:

“She talked a lot about you.”

… In view of the way their friendship had ended, Erica assumed that Alex had turned her back on her and never given her another thought. (p. 27)

For a while, I wondered if Erica’s sinister tendency to segue between saying she had encountered Alex over the years, on the one hand, and saying she hadn’t seen her since childhood, on the other, was part of the plot. But other elements soon persuaded me that Läckberg is dedicatedly inconsistent – about a lot of things – and no editorial eye troubled about addressing it. (Perhaps the editors were playing solitaire, as one of the local police officers passes the time doing.) The same dilemma arises in the many descriptions of rooms, which are laborious in the extreme:

Patrik … had to admit that for a cellar flat it wasn’t half bad. … [He] looked round the dark little office, which was sumptuously decorated with shiny marble and pillows with gold tassels. An excellent example of what too little taste in combination with too much money could buy. (p. 205)

Publishers, too, might wonder at the depiction of themselves as agonizingly focused on one writer’s output (although if they know Erica, perhaps their worry is not so strange):

” … and now I’m late with my book and the publisher is after me … ” (p. 41)

She no longer felt any enthusiasm for the biography, but she was bound by her contract, and in a few months it had to be done. (p. 197, emphasis added)

Selma Lägerlof, at least, can rest easy. This is one book that will never be written.

The inconsistencies are not merely a chore; they plague the plot. Police officer Patrik Hedström, Erica’s boyfriend (acquired with the help of a new bra, about which we learn a great deal), fails to make numerous connections between the suspects, then suddenly knows all about them. Interviews and conversations function not to share information but to fill in the spaces between the characters’ thought processes and the consumerist details of their acquisitions. Readers have to wait for pages to find out what Erica and Patrik “suddenly” realize but don’t reveal – to us or to each other – for pages (over which time I feared they had forgotten).

And the landscape of Fjällbacka utterly vanishes. It could be any anonymous fishing town in winter, anywhere a decent distance from the equator.

Läckberg does take a stab at humor in the character of the police superintendent, Mellberg, but the real howlers come from the book’s obsession with personal feminine details, from knickers to diseases. The following provided me with an hour’s diversionary entertainment surfing everything from WebMD to the Mayo Clinic, as well as pondering Erica’s clothing habits when out to visit an attorney’s office in winter:

She placed her mittens on a park bench and then sat down on them as protection under her seat. Urinary tract infections were nothing to play around with. … (p. 64)

In case you’re in doubt: no, cold is not a cause of UTIs (nor are park benches, though I wouldn’t try sitting commando on one in winter to test its sanitary qualities) – and no, this isn’t the last time this topic will surface in The Ice Princess.

But my “wow” moment came in the description of Erica’s abusive British brother-in-law, Lucas:

She thought he had a cruel streak that acted like a filter over his facial features. … He didn’t look like the typical ruddy Englishman; he was more like a Norwegian with light-blond hair and icy blue eyes. (p. 64)

An attempt at a “Norwegian joke,” nationalist bigotry, or just more sloppy writing?

I know I am being rough on Läckberg. “In person,” she seems lovely. But pleasant people are not necessarily good writers. As a writer (rather than as a marketing commodity), she has been ill served by the publishing industry. But she has not served herself well either – for instance, by watching TV while writing, which probably accounts for much of the ADD quality to the plotting.

And this is a problem the publishing industry and readers are going to have to come to terms with. Do we want to encourage slipshod production just because people seem “nice”? At a time when bookstores like Borders are on the verge of bankruptcy and the publishing world agonizes over what e-readers are going to mean for print, should publishing houses offer huge advances to people who demonstrate that they can’t or won’t focus on the value of what they produce? And what of reviewers and editors – do they, too, hold themselves excused from doing their jobs?

This, of course, is not a problem limited to publishing. And it’s one that’s doing an increasing disservice to global consumers.

I’ll probably never find out if Läckberg’s writing improved over six more volumes. It was hard enough to get through this one. Had I not realized too late that digital rights management (DRM) disallows my recouping any investment in this book,  I would have quit before the end of the first chapter.

If you must try out The Ice Princess, I recommend a wonderful element still to be found at times in the American landscape: the public library. Consumers can do far better with their hard-earned cash than to spend it on this book, which they aren’t likely to keep in either format.

Better yet, though, turn to other writers to address your fixation with Scandinavian crime. Norwegian writer Karin Fossum is a good choice for intimate psychological studies of village and neighborhood characters. Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm, The Blood Spilt, and The Black Path are weird and sometimes wonderful investigations in the northern regions of Sweden. For more a more urban, tough-guy scenario, Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast is a good choice (though I have feminist issues with Nesbø).

For my part, I’m almost ready for a dose of Henning Mankell‘s anxiety-ridden Kurt Wallendar, with his midlife crisis and accidental ways of solving crimes – which I can’t say I like, but Mankell at least can write.

Or maybe I’ll just surf Google’s free offerings for a while.