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THE LOST BOY by Camilla Lackberg
This is as good a book as any to get acquainted with the works of Camilla Lackberg , who already, at 38, is one of Sweden’s and Scandinavia’s bestselling authors . On the evidence of this book alone, a hefty tome of 150,000 words, this is justifiably so. All wannabe writers will be interested in the fact that Camilla, an economist by training, started writing seriously after receiving a creative writing course as a present from her husband.
The Lost Boy is actually the seventh in the series featuring Detective Patrick Hedstrom and his author wife Erica Falck to be published in English. Four more await translation and work has already begun on a TV series based on the characters.
Like Henning Mankel and Karin Fossum, Lackberg eschews the big city location for her settings, preferring instead the tiny town of Fjallbacka, her birthplace, on the west coast of Sweden. Indeed Fjallbacka, with a population of well under 2000, makes Wallender’ s Ystad (population 18,000) seem a metropolis.
Patrick Hedstrom, also, is different. Unlike Wallender, (and many other male detectives) a brooding loner fond of opera and the bottle, Hedstrom is a family man, with young children, in-laws and relatives, and a feisty novelist wife, Erica, a character with more than a little of her creator. He has to juggle domestic duties with those of his work, in a fashion that is endearing and attractive to the reader.
Detective fiction is littered with casualties – the stereotype being the semi (or wholly) alcoholic with a history of one or more failed relationships. Hedstrom therefore is a refreshing change, as positive in his own way, ceteris paribus, as Sara Paretsy’s admirable Chicago sleuth V.I. Warshawski.
The small town setting, with a cast of characters known to each other (albeit only for the purposes of the novel) has prompted some commentators to refer to Lackberg as the Swedish Agatha Christie, with all the main characters, including the villain, assembled on the one canvass. But this is to over simplify. The plots are carefully constructed, usually – as in the Lost Boy – with an outsider at the core and containing also an unrelated back story, usually rooted in the past, which evolves in parallel with the main plot.
The Lost Boy opens with Nathalie, a young woman, fleeing some unexplained but bloody incident in Stockholm, returning with her five year old son to Graskar, a small family owned island near Fjallbacka. Graskar, the Island of Ghosts, where, according to legend, those who die there never leave, forms the background for the sub- plot, a chilling Gothic tale of Nineteenth Century sexual and social frustration.
Meanwhile, Patrik Hedstrom, a local detective just recovering from a serious car accident, returns to be confronted with a murder investigation. Exhaustive investigation into the background of the victim, Mats Sverin, the local council’s financial director, has turned up only unanswered questions. Is it perhaps, related to a major local leisure centre development? Or something more sinister? As the story evolves, clues gradually emerge, but the reader remains left guessing. Is it coincidence or not that Mats and Nathalie were childhood sweethearts?
Lackberg is rightly praised for her attention to detail and the strength of her characterisation – indeed we could all learn from her – and this book delivers on both in earnest. Her characters are complicated people, far from perfect but developed, flaws and all, at times driving the plot. The improbably incompetent local chief of police is a case in point. “No country for old men” is the least of clichés applicable in respect of Mellberg, whose blunderings underline the oft heard caution to “Beware the Active Fool” and which end up having tragic results.
I thought at first the book might be a bit too long but in fact Lackberg uses the very length to build up characters and weave the whole into a remarkably realistic work. The actual denouement is cleverly handled and utilises another of Lackberg’s distinctive literary devices – an imaginary peripeteia, as in ancient Greek drama, a reversal showing everything from a different perspective.
An excellent read from a formidable talent.