The Gallows Bird, By Camilla Läckberg, trans. Steven T Murray

Barry Forshaw
Friday 11 March 2011 01:00
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The fact that a reality television show features in Camilla Läckberg's mesmerising new novel will mean little to English readers of this best-selling Nordic writer, but her fellow Swedes might discern a little score-settling. Läckberg was the subject of much unwanted attention when the details of her divorce became headline news in Sweden. The most infinitesimal detail of her private life became a matter of public interest, so that when she began a relationship with a man also very well known in Sweden (a policeman who was the first winner of the Swedish version of the reality show Survivor), the scrutiny was ratcheted up to an even higher level. On a recent visit to Britain, she was bemused when it was pointed out to her that some crime fiction authors here would kill for that kind of attention.

The important thing about Läckberg, though, is the remarkable success her moody crime novels have enjoyed abroad - a success yet to be replicated in this country. Will The Gallows Bird deliver Britain to her?

In all her work, Läckberg examines her own sense of identity – both as a writer and as a Swede. She is a Scandinavian, but her literary template (and spiritual home) is the cloistered English town as evoked in Agatha Christie's St Mary Mead; large cosmopolitan cities have no appeal for her. The vagaries of human nature are her palette, in all their multiple aspects, along with a Manichean sense of good and evil.

The Gallows Bird is the fourth entry in Läckberg's Fjällbacka series. A car crash in Tanumshede initially appears to be a simple accident, but a second, similar accident has Detective Patrick Hedström wondering if the victims in both had been murdered. At the same time, Tanumshede is in something of a turmoil because of a reality TV show which is being produced locally.

The frenzied attention given to the five-minutes-of-fame stars has Hedström beginning to suspect that the killer is connected with the phenomenon. The detective's private life is distinctly unsettled, as he is tackling the problems of his forthcoming marriage to the writer Erica Falck (the couple are the central characters in Läckberg's sequence); problems sidelined when a chaotic alcohol-fuelled party ends with the death of an unpopular contestant on the TV show.

As with earlier books (ably translated by Steven T Murray), there is an adroit manipulation of elements: the unpredictable plotting, the striking evocation of life in this idyllic (but flawed) community and - perhaps most satisfying - the intriguing interaction between Patrick and Erica, both loving and fractious. It's Läckberg's particular skill to have created two of the most fully rounded characters in contemporary crime fiction, with a warmth that cuts through the Nordic chill.

Her publishers are hoping to finesse for Läckberg the success in the UK she enjoys on her native soil and in Germany, where her sales are prodigious. The Gallows Bird may be the book to pull off that particular coup, though addicts of reality TV may not be the target readership.

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