Camilla Lackberg: Crime is on her side

By Stephen Jewell

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Stephen Jewell talks to ‘Swedish Agatha Christie’ Camilla Lackberg about her close friendship with her characters, fact being darker than fiction and the myths surrounding her country.

Author Camilla Lackberg.
Author Camilla Lackberg.

From Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy and Henning Mankell's Wallander series, to television shows such as The Killing and The Bridge, Scandinavia has been a hotbed of thriller fiction in recent years. So you can forgive Camilla Lackberg for laughing even before I've finished my question about the continuing popularity of so-called Nordic Noir.

Based in Stockholm, the 39-year-old was ranked an impressive ninth on Europe's best-selling author list last year, having sold more than 12 million copies of the eight instalments to date in the adventures of crime-solving duo Erika Falck and Patrik Hedstrom.

"It's like success breeds success," she says. "I often compare it to the rise of Swedish tennis in the 1970s when we had Bjorn Borg. A lot of boys wanted to play tennis after that and a lot of talent came out of that. It's the same with the Scandi-crime scene. We've had some really good authors who have inspired a lot of other authors. We've had some authors who write crime novels so well it has brought them out of the shame corner.

Before that, it was perceived as being like bad literature but they've really raised the bar, so a lot of good writers have started writing crime."

Known as "the Swedish Agatha Christie", Lackberg admits she is heavily influenced by the classic British tradition of crime writing.

"I found my first Agatha Christie on my father's bookshelf when I was 7," she recalls. "It was Death On The Nile and it got me hooked. By the time I was 11, I had read all her books and nowadays I read fantastic authors like Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill and Val McDermid."

While she prefers Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, Lackberg is also a fan of Christie's lesser-known Partners In Crime series, which centred around the husband and wife duo of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. "They are not quite as famous as her other books but I really like them. The funny thing is that they were also a couple, like my characters Erika and Patrik, so maybe I was inspired by that as well."

Readers are drawn in by the sinister conspiracies that Patrik and Erika inevitably uncover, but Lackberg suggests they are equally fascinated by their domestic melodramas.

"I believe in the old-school way of writing crime so I haven't really invented anything new when it comes to telling crime stories. But what I've done differently and which has contributed to the success of the books, is that I've added this modern part where you can follow the everyday life of this couple. That seems to have become my own personal angle on the crime tradition."

Having first written about the pair in 2003's The Ice Princess, Lackberg finds it hard to separate her own existence from Erika and Patrik's fictional exploits. "To me, they're not even characters, they're like real people. Over the past 10 years, I've spent more time with them than I have with my real friends, so they're kind of like my best friends. They're a couple who are the main characters in my books and I couldn't have one without the other. So the appeal for both me and the readers has been seeing how their relationship develops. They're such a normal couple and they really go through all the things that most couples go through. People can easily relate to them and that has been part of the success of the books, that they can relate to this couple in Sweden."

Opening with the burning down of an idyllic coastal holiday camp, Lackberg's latest novel, Buried Angels, appeared to be too close to actual events following the co-ordinated car bombing in Oslo and the murder of 69 people on the island of Utoya by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik in July 2011.

"That was very weird," she recalls. "I'd just finished the manuscript and then the attacks happened. I realised that what had happened was very similar to the situation in my book, so I called my editor immediately. We decided I had to include an afterword stating the book was already finished so people couldn't say we were trying to profit by writing about a tragedy.

"It's strange how reality always exceeds fiction and it's always worse than anything you can make up as a crime writer. I read a lot of true crime and if I made up a story with the kind of plots that are in those books, my editor would say they are too far out. It's scary how we can always do worse than what's in fiction."

Despite its striking landscape, Lackberg insists that her homeland is not the green and pleasant utopia it is frequently perceived to be. "People have this image of Sweden as a perfect society but we've had one Prime Minister killed and we've had our Foreign Minister killed," she says. "It keeps surprising people that these things actually happen in our country but we have the same kind of problems as anywhere else."

After seeing Once Were Warriors - or Warrior's Heart, as it was called in Sweden - Lackberg also has no illusions about New Zealand, which she will visit for next month's Auckland Writers Festival. "That film was really popular here about 20 years ago," she says. "It was really brutal and tragic ... and as a true crime, I also love Heavenly Creatures and I've read up on the story of those two girls."

Buried Angels (Harper $34.99) is out now. Camilla Lackberg will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 16 and 17.

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- NZ Herald

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