Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Okay, so I finished this one last night.  If you read my previous post, you know I was worried about this one.  Here's how it shook down:

The verdict:  I can see why Lackberg sells books.  I just can't see why she gets the glowing reviews from people and institutions that should be a little more conscientious in pointing out some truly major flaws going on here.

What I liked:
The plot.  It kept me interested enough to finish the book, despite my major annoyance with the things I didn't like, listed below.  This says a lot for Lackberg's ability to dream up a scenario that sticks with you.

I figured out *why* the murders/kidnappings were happening about 100 or 150 pages into the book.  (I was actually a little disappointed when I got to the end and found out I was right...I was hoping Lackberg had something trickier up her sleeve.)  However, I didn't know who the exact murderer was, so there was plenty of suspense remaining as I finished the 400+ page book.

What I didn't like:
The writing.  It never got better.  The adverbs stuck around, there were awkward phrases, there were missing commas, and sentences that just didn't flow well.  I ground my teeth and pressed on, but it irritated me.  A lot.  Here's an example of a classic Lackberg sentence introducing a new character:  "Stig Thulin, normally sporting a toothy grin, now had a worried frown furrowing his noble brow."  Adjectives and adverbs aren't more effective when they appear in number.  They're just a sign of sloppy writing.

For those of us trying to get published, we read agent and publisher blogs, and their first words of advice are to proofread, proofread, proofread, and be sure that your writing mechanics are solid.  Then we see the kind of sloppy writing in this book, with #1 International Bestseller slapped across the top of the book.  What kind of message does that send?  Apparently good writing skills aren't that important...but being part of a trendy literary movement is.

The dialogue.  It's stilted, and sometimes it doesn't read any differently than the narration.  It reminds me of the gist of an Elmore Leonard saying:  If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.  This should count double for dialogue.  Here's an example of the clunky dialogue.  The police are questioning a character, Solveig, and the character responds angrily:  "Then his brother came along and began hovering about, and that was something completely different.  Those hands of his could be all over you at once.  He made me burn with lust just by looking at me."  Let's be honest.  Are those words ever spoken out loud?  Does anyone actually say "burn with lust"?     

The characters.  I didn't find any of them sympathetic, except for the father and parents of two of the missing girls (and these are ancillary characters at best). They're all kind of dim or mean or short-sighted.  That's not necessarily a kiss of death.  The book takes place in a very small town, with characters who don't have a lot of exposure to other people or viewpoints.  It's entirely possible this town is populated with some pretty dull crayons.  But it doesn't make for the most enjoyable of reads.  None of them were good enough to root for, and none of them were evil enough to where I could love to hate them.

The main character, Patrik, had his moments, but he seemed far too suggestible.  Near the end of the book, the police station receptionist tells him he hasn't been paying enough attention to his pregnant wife, and he instantly takes her advice to go home early and feels super-guilty from that moment on.  Is a guy perceptive enough to solve major crimes really this dim about his personal life?  I'm not sure I buy it.  

The other main character, Erica, was sidelined by being heavily pregnant throughout the book.  (She had a much more active role in the previous book, The Ice Princess.)  In this book, however, she came across as bitchy and cranky.  I have never been eight months pregnant during a hot summer, though, so maybe I'm being too hard on the character.  What I do know is that the character's misery often came by being too passive.

The quick-jump method of cutting between scenes.  The scenes here are short--sometimes only a page.  On one hand, it's good that Lackberg doesn't linger and let readers get bored.  On the other hand, in a book 419 pages long, it represents a crapload of setting and character switches for the reader to process.  It gets old.

The fact that neither the author nor publisher included a list of characters or family tree in the beginning of the book.  I was almost constantly confused as to who was who's son, cousin, aunt, grandfather, etc.  When I was still confused halfway through the book, I sort of gave up trying to actively understand and just let the names wash over me.  And this is coming from a history major and genealogy enthusiast--I'm used to keeping enormous family trees in my head.  Would it have killed the publishers to go back and add a one-page family tree in the beginning?  They did it for Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The pointless flashbacks.  We're taken back to 1979 in a series of flashbacks from the victims' point of view.  We learn nothing useful.  There's no reason for these flashbacks to be here.  Their sole purpose seems to be to break up the action and perhaps to generate a sense of sympathy for the victims.  But come on...they're murder victims.  They already have my sympathy.  In an indirect way, perhaps they're meant to show how horrific these crimes really are.  But there are better ways to do this using the reactions of the detectives as they piece the crime together.  Another example of something sloppy that probably should have been edited out, or made more useful.

The fact that Lackberg hides facts from the reader to prolong the suspense.  This is a biggie.  A no-no.  One of the dirty tricks that writers can resort to, but shouldn't.

For example, a character named Stefan is beat up in the course of the book.  We are not told who does the beating up.  The attacker makes demands of Stefan and tells him to do certain things.  We are not told what they are or who makes the demands, although clearly Stefan knows.  ("But when he was turned round so that he stood eye to eye with the person who had attacked him, all the bits fell into place.")  Why are we even taken to this scene in the first place if we're not to be told any of the key facts that are revealed here?  If knowing who the attacker is would spoil everything, why even show us Stefan getting beaten up?  Why not just have us find out when the other characters do?  This only makes the reader mad.  Had we known who the assailant was, we would have had a major clue as to the murderer's identity.  

This happens frequently.  Characters are frequently getting phone calls that provide key information in the plot, but the reader is left out of the conversation.  For example, Patrik takes a call at the station:  "With trepidation he steeled himself to listen to what the lab had to say.  Maybe they would finally have the piece of the puzzle they were looking for.  But never in Patrik's wildest imagination could he have predicted what he heard next."  We don't find out what the lab said.  The characters know, but the reader doesn't.  This doesn't strike me as fair.  Yes, it prolongs the suspense, but a bit artificially.  Once again, we would have had a major clue as to the murderer's identity, but Lackberg withholds this information.

The result:
It's weird.  I'm kind of at a loss here.  I get why people read these books--obviously I plowed through on the strength of the plot alone.  But because of all these other irritations, I'm not planning on reading any more Lackberg.  On the back of the book, some of the words of praise from her blurbs use words like "haunting," "skillful," "masterful," "perfect," and "keen understanding."  I'm shaking my head and thinking, really?  The U.S. has far more talented writers than this, ones who deserve this type of praise.  But maybe Nordic noir as a genre is so hot that publishers and even reviewers can overlook things that aren't overlooked for the rest of us?