Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nordic Noir: Camilla Lackberg's The Preacher--I'm Worried, You Guys

Nordic noir, here we go!

In terms of ancestry and heritage, I'm half Swedish.  I don't speak Swedish, and I haven't yet been to Sweden, but I do know a bit about the culture and the darkness and the silence often portrayed as natural to Swedes.  Since "Nordic noir" is the latest trend in mystery/thrillers, I'm taking a sampling and sharing my thoughts here.

I'm beginning with Camilla Lackberg.  I started "The Preacher" two nights ago, and let me tell you, folks, I'm worried.   

Let's start with the good:
*The plot is intriguing.  I'm sucked in almost against my will.  I do want to find out what happens next.  I'm only 90 pages in, but so far, there's a current murder that ties in with two decades-old murders.  A sleepy small-town police department without much murder-solving experience is responsible for figuring out whodunit, so it's not like watching a crime show where the slick characters toss around lingo for the sake of looking like they know what they're doing.  These cops are regular people, and as such, easy to relate to in their befuddlement and horror at the crime.

*There's a creepy cast of characters, most of whom do seem capable of murder.  This makes for lots of suspects and lots of " it her?" moments.

*The details of Swedish life are interesting.  For example, to please a vacationing family with picky eaters, one of the main characters makes macaroni and Falun sausage au gratin.  I have no idea what Falun sausage is, so I looked it up.  I wondered if it's the same sausage my family makes and serves each Christmas.  These kinds of details might not interest someone without Swedish ancestry, but they're fun for me, so I'm chalking it up in the plus column.

Here's what's not so good:
*The writing itself.  It's really, really, really bad.  I don't know if this is a translation problem, or if Lackberg is this poor a stylist.  The paragraph-long bio tells us that she was working as an economist in Stockholm until a creative writing class changed the course of her life.  Okay, so this explains the poor style on her part, but what about editing?  What about revising?  Let me give you some examples:

An insistent ringing of her doorbell interrupted Erica as she was laboriously running the vacuum cleaner over the carpets.  Sweat was copiously pouring out of her, and she pushed back a couple of wet strands of hair from her face before she opened the door.  They must have driven like joyriders to arrive that fast.
I'm not a fan of the adverbs, which are EVERYWHERE in this book.  I'm not a fan of the passive voice, which is EVERYWHERE in this book.  It's grating, and I can't help but think that any American writer who submitted writing like this would be told to go back to her desk and revise and polish until the manuscript was in a bit better shape.  

*The quick jumps from scene to scene. Prepare to be confused.  The book progresses in quick scenes, no more than a few pages at a time.  Then there's a hunk of white space, and you're catapulted into another character's thoughts.  Which one?  Sometimes you don't know for a good paragraph.  And since there are lots of characters, it can sometimes be a struggle to re-orient yourself every few pages.  The book tests your determination and the author tests your goodwill with this strategy.

*Some of the characters are annoying.  Actually, lots of the characters are annoying.  One of the main characters, Erica, takes the cake.  She is whiny and passive.  Granted, she is pregnant and allowed to be a little grouchy.  And Swedes can be very passive.  But behind that passivity and silence, there is usually a deep strength of will and conviction in keeping silent to solve one's own problems in one's own time.  (Think Stieg Larsson's Vanger family in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)  So far, I'm not seeing that in Erica.  Most of the characters are unsympathetic, which makes the rare sympathetic character stand out all the more.  A murdered girl's widowed father stands out as one of these.  It's not that he's angelic, it's just that he's not rude, whiny, passive aggressive, full of himself, or just generally dim.

*You need a cheat sheet to keep the characters straight.  There are the police officers and their families.  There are the dead women and their flashbacks and their surviving family members.  There are the suspects and their three generations to keep straight.  You have to either read very slowly, or break down and make a cheat sheet.  So far, I'm just reading slowly.

Okay, so that's my feeling based on the first 90 pages.  I'm going to slog through and see if the pluses or minuses win out in the end.  Will the interesting plot save the bad writing and sloppy style?  We'll find out.

In case you're interested in Lackberg or The Preacher, here's the Washington Post's review of this book.  What do you think?

Have you read Lackberg or any other Nordic noir authors?