Death in a small village

By Craig Sisterson In Auckland Writers Festival

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Camilla Läckberg: Sweden’s answer to Agatha Christie. Photo/Getty Images

For a little more than a decade, bodies have slowly but surely been piling up in the tiny fishing village of Fjällbacka on Sweden’s west coast. Gilded by mountain and sea, the picturesque hamlet has gone from being famous for herring, crayfish and summer visits by film star Ingrid Bergman to having a reputation for murder.

In among the peace of lapping tides and creaking boats, crime scenes are plentiful. People around the globe read of death and violence, of corpses in baths or hanging from diving boards. But the locals, numbering fewer than a thousand, don’t seem to mind. In fact, they’ve embraced their newfound status and even the culprit herself. Visitors can take guided tours inspired by the killings.

When Camilla Läckberg decided to commit her first murder, Fjällbacka made perfect sense, despite its tiny population and idyllic setting. After all, the village was the childhood home of the then-budding crime writer. “A teacher once told me I should always write about something I know, so my stories would be more believable and true,” she says. “So I listened to him, and hence it’s why the plot always takes place in Fjällbacka.”

Läckberg, who will appear at events around New Zealand this month, was also drawn to Fjällbacka as a backdrop because the books she most loved as a “crime fiction nerd” were village murder mysteries rather than gritty hardboiled thrillers set among the mean streets of big cities.

“Agatha Christie’s novels were the books that really got me hooked on the genre,” she says. “I had read most of her books before I even had turned 10 years old. I still love the way she mixes nice environments with murders.”

Years later, having set brutal killings against Fjällbacka’s “nice environment” across a series of acclaimed novels, Läckberg has been touted as “the Swedish Agatha Christie”. She’s one of Europe’s best-selling authors across all genres, has been translated into more than 30 languages and has outsold Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in Sweden.

“Scandinavia is often portrayed internationally as a fairly innocent place, with a modest crime rate,” says Läckberg. “Exploring horrible murders and darkness in this region created interesting contrasts, I think.”

Fjällbacka: home of a serene harbour and many grisly fictional murders. Photo/Thinkstock

The “write what you know” advice she received came as part of a crime-writing course Läckberg received as a Christmas present from her husband, mother and brother. Her family knew she’d been unhappy working as an economist in Stockholm and had harboured the dream of writing novels since telling stories and crafting little books about goblins during her childhood. “I always considered being a writer as an impossible dream,” she recalls. “It was not something you could have as a profession.”

The crime-writing course was the first step. Another factor was going on maternity leave, giving her time to continue work on her manuscript for what would become The Ice Princess.

Seeing her ideas turn into the book, published in 2003, was a pivotal and “incredibly surreal” moment, she says. “Just the thought of finding your own novel in the bookstore. Being a competitive person, I always need to see results. This was a mental boost I lived on for a very long time.”

The Ice Princess introduced readers to writer Erica Falck and police detective Patrik Hedström, both investigating the looks-like-suicide death of a resident of the small closed community with a disturbing past.

Läckberg is renowned for her detailed characterisation and perhaps unsurprisingly she’s developed a strong relationship with Erica and Patrik as they have evolved and grown alongside her series. “I know them from the inside and out. Writing periods are generally very intense and it might be strange if we writers did not create a special bond with our main characters … I love Erica’s stubbornness and curiosity, and Patrik’s unconditional love for his family.”

Fictional characters should feel believable and be portrayed as people really are, says Läckberg. “As we go through life, we get affected by our surroundings, by incidents and relationships. Hence we mature and change. I like my characters to be the same. It makes them more interesting.” Going deeply into her characters’ feelings and fears helps create emotional connection and engage readers in the story, she says.

In Buried Angels, the eighth book in the Fjällbacka series, Erica and Patrik juggle domestic dramas while being drawn into strange happenings on the island of Valö, where a local woman has returned decades after her entire family disappeared without a trace. Arson and the discovery of blood under the floorboards mean an investigation is launched and Läckberg weaves an intriguing story entwined in several dark periods from the past.

When I ask Läckberg how she knows if or when an idea is novel-worthy, she says it comes down to gut feeling. “The inspiration must be something you can build upon and allow different perspectives. I also want to set the story in a contemporary context, using recent subjects as a part of the plot.”

In the case of Buried Angels, the seed was an old article that got Läckberg’s “mind spinning” before she started putting fingers to keyboard. “It was about the local angel maker, who you will read about in the novel and became the central character of the whole plot.”

Läckberg says she is excited about her first visit to New Zealand. “I have always spent time meeting my readers face to face. In the beginning of my career, I toured almost every bookstore in Sweden.

“Nowadays, I have daily contact with readers through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but it’s still hard to grasp the amazing support I have. For me, it means everything to meet my readers. They are my motivation, encouragement and the reason I can do what I do.”

BURIED ANGELS, by Camilla Läckberg (HarperCollins, $34.99).

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