It’s got to be something in the fjord water. Or maybe lingonberries are an unacknowledged superfood. How else to explain all the superlative Swedish crime writers who have swarmed into the mystery arena since the mid-1960s? Indeed, the greatest unsolved mystery in the mystery world is no longer what happened to Agatha Christie during her 11-day disappearance in 1926, but, rather, “What’s up with the Swedes?”
And, speaking of Dame Agatha, here’s a young Swedish writer who’s being hailed as “the Swedish Agatha Christie.” Purists out there will snort in derision, but Camilla Lackberg is very, very good. Her novels are outselling those of her late countryman Stieg Larsson, and if she keeps producing mysteries as richly textured and downright breathtaking as her latest, “The Stonecutter,” who knows? Maybe, one day, we might be identifying Agatha Christie as “the British Camilla Lackberg.”
“The Stonecutter” is one of those mysteries that ruin a vacation. Take it to the beach and your eyes will be so locked on its pages, you’ll never even know there’s an ocean in front of you. There are two primary and at least five subsidiary story lines in this thick novel: All of them have to do with doomed relationships and fatally fractured families; all of them slither seamlessly in and around each other in one big snake pit of warped desire.
The first corpse turns up on the second page, when an old lobsterman from the town of Fjallbacka hauls up a curiously heavy lobster pot. What the lobsterman discovers tangled up in the lines sends him heaving his breakfast over the side of his old wooden snipa:
“It was a child: he’d pulled a child up from the sea. A girl, with her long red hair plastered round her face, and lips just as blue as her eyes, which now stared unseeing at the sky.”
When local police detective Patrik Hedstrom arrives at the wharf, he realizes to his horror that he knows the girl: Her mother is the close friend of his domestic partner, Erica. Patrik and Erica have recently become parents themselves, and the stresses of life with a newborn have plunged him into a sleepless daze and her into post-partum depression. Despite his exhaustion, however, Patrik pushes himself to work nonstop to solve the girl’s murder — a murder made even more grotesque by two clues quickly turned up by the coroner: It turns out the child was drowned in bath water, not seawater, and her mouth, lungs and stomach contain residues of an even more disturbing substance.
Beginning in the second chapter, “The Stonecutter” swerves away from contemporary horrors to pursue what looks to be a separate story line, one that begins in 1923. Agnes Stjernkvist is 19, beautiful and spoiled rotten. Her doting father is the prosperous owner of the local granite quarry in the town of Stromstad. While her father may not discern Agnes’s budding sociopathic tendencies, they’re immediately on display to the reader:
“Agnes never would have dared to say it out loud, but sometimes she thought it was lucky that her mother had died when she was born. That way she’d had her father all to herself, and considering what she’d heard, her mother might have been harder to manipulate.”
After all, a budding femme fatale has to practice on someone.
Agnes sets her increasingly predatory gaze on a muscular young stonecutter. But, when Agnes’s casual fling results in an unwanted pregnancy, a bitter trans-Atlantic epic is set in motion that, almost a century later, will culminate in the horror of that drowned little girl.
Every family in “The Stonecutter” is exposed as damaged in some way, some irrevocably so. Even the police headquarters where Patrik spends his days houses one big dysfunctional workplace family, complete with slackers, weak authority figures and resentful siblings. Lackberg has a gift for capturing complicated emotions and off-kilter characters in a few quick, revelatory strokes. Thus, when Patrik interviews the affable mistress of the dead girl’s father, he’s put off by something in her manner. Then he realizes what’s wrong: “She hadn’t uttered a word about the fact that her lover’s daughter had died. . . . There was something indecent about her obvious lack of empathy.”
“The Stonecutter” contains a multitude of moments like that one, where what seems normal turns rancid under closer scrutiny. By the time this operatic novel concludes on a jarring note of violence, the wisdom of the old adage about one bad apple spoiling the whole bushel will be sadly proved all too true.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Camilla Lackberg
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray
Pegasus. 489 pp. $25.95