Book review: ‘The Preacher’ by Camilla Lackberg

June 12, 2011

Warning to readers: This gripping, unsettling thriller may call for a little extra work on your part. The author, Camilla Lackberg, likes to shift suddenly, sometimes a bit confusingly, from one set of dramatis personae to another. My advice is to draw up a chart of the characters and their relationships as you go along so that you can refresh your memory as people zip on and off the stage. With that chart handy, you should have little trouble keeping track of who’s who, especially the members of the large, unsavory clan at the center of the action: the Hults.

The novel opens with a triple whammy: The body of a recently murdered young woman named Tanja is found at a rock formation called King’s Cleft in rural Sweden. As the police poke around, they discover skeletons nearby — the remains of two young women who disappeared in the region 20 years earlier. What this array of murders past and present signifies is a question that Lackberg’s regular protagonist, police detective Patrik Hedstrom, must answer to solve the case.

As the book’s title suggests, that case has something to do with The Preacher, the late Ephraim Hult, a charismatic man of God whose fame rested on his faith-healing powers, which he passed on to his two adorable sons — at least for a while. The boys’ gifts deserted them when they were still young, forcing them to adjust to life as it plays out for ordinary mortals; one son eventually hanged himself. The Hults figure in the investigation in other ways, too, including the detail that a grandson of Ephraim’s was the last person to see Tanja alive.

Patrik’s detective work is complicated by the summer heat, his wife’s pregnancy (it will be their first child) and the tendency of relatives and friends to sponge off the family, whose house sits conveniently close to the seacoast. He also has to negotiate office politics, including a chief who likes to hog the credit for solving cases he had almost nothing to do with; a resentful veteran cop who can’t see that he’s been kept back by his own laziness and ineptitude; and an otherwise competent colleague who defers to that veteran because of his seniority. Patrik is smart, thorough and humane, but no paragon. Faced with so many distractions, he sometimes has trouble staying focused, and Lackberg has made him appealingly complex.

As Patrik and his colleagues conduct interviews and analyze forensic test results, the case takes on a new dimension. Although Tanja was a German citizen, she had a particular reason to visit this part of Sweden: to do research on those two girls who went missing there 20 years ago. Among several surprises that Lackberg springs on the reader is that DNA testing is not quite the infallible technique we think it is. The fault lies not in the biology but in the knowledge and expectations we bring to the lab. Lackberg gives an ingenious answer to what might be posed as a riddle: How can a guilty man’s DNA save him from being found out?

A clever plot and in-depth characterization aren’t the only qualities that elevate “The Preacher” above most other thrillers. There’s also an admirable feel for detail. Consider this observation, which took me back to the 1950s suburban milieu in which I grew up. Covering up hardwood floors became customary in Sweden at the time (as it did in Missouri), and here’s why: “When linoleum was first introduced, it became a blatant symbol of a life no longer mired in the poverty of the previous generation.”

Picking the Scandinavian thriller-writer who will be the next Stieg Larsson (he of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy) has become something of a game. Henning Mankell has been mentioned, along with Jo Nesbo, but for my money, the best choices are two women: Karin Fossum and Lackberg. “The Preacher” can go up against the Larsson books head-on when it comes to narrative drive and skillful exploration of family secrets. All that it lacks is Larsson’s computer jock, whose cybersuperpowers threaten to reduce the novels she dominates to the level of comic books. Patrik Hedstrom is no demigod — all the more reason to look forward to more English translations of the books in which he has been appearing.

Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.

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