Lackberg, Camilla – ‘The Gallows Bird’ (translated by Steven T Murray)
Hardback: 384 pages (Mar. 2011) Publisher: HarperCollins ISBN: 0007254008
The fourth in the Erica Falck-Patrik Hedstrom series set in Fjällbacka and Tanumshede, south-west Sweden, contains all the ingredients that made the previous three novels such a success. What’s more, like many of the better crime-fiction series, one can read THE GALLOWS BIRD without having first read the previous novels, though readers will probably enjoy it more if they have.
The backbone of the series is the relationship between Erica, a writer, and Patrik, a police detective, who get together in the first novel (THE ICE PRINCESS); by the time THE GALLOWS BIRD opens, they are living together, have a cute baby and are very soon to be married. Another recurring theme is that of Erica’s sister Anna, the victim of dreadful domestic abuse, made even harder for Anna to deal with because she has two very young children herself. In THE GALLOWS BIRD, Anna is living with Erica; her presence in the novel and the sisters’ relationship add to its emotional depth. Another factor that ties together the series is the Tanumshede police station, where we follow the lives of Patrik (who acts as a proxy for the lazy, rather stupid chief Mellberg) and his colleagues from book to book.
The focus of each novel, however, is a crime (or crimes) that is independent of the other books. Here, the story starts in a rather bitty way, as Patrik is called out to a fatal car crash that turns out to be non-accidental, and a coach-load of ghastly teenagers turns up to take part in a fifth-rate reality TV show. Soon the teens are making a nuisance of themselves by getting drunk, fighting, and displaying their various neuroses (or worse) as they fulfil their contract by undertaking menial jobs and being filmed working and interacting (mainly arguing) with each other. The town worthies are only too delighted with the nationwide publicity, but it isn’t so easy for Patrik and colleagues to cope with the fallout. Eventually, one of the contestants is found dead, so the police have to investigate the crime while suffering continual media interference as well as the obstructiveness of the show’s materialistic producers and sullen participants.
As usual, I felt that Patrik and colleagues were occasionally a bit slow off the mark to make rather obvious connections or to pick up on clues, and some aspects of the plot depended on people not looking up relevant information in archives or being on holiday so not replying to requests for information. Another of my pet-hates features in the book; passages in italics interspersed with the main story purporting to come from the “mind of the killer”. Nevertheless, both investigations are solidly and engagingly depicted; particularly noteworthy is the sensitivity of Patrik and most of his colleagues to vulnerable witnesses, some of whom are portrayed vividly (for example Sophie, the daughter of the car crash victim). In the end, however, the (rather too clearly signalled) solution was too far-fetched for my taste.
The personal story of Erica and her circle is a strong theme in the novel, and although quite a heavy dose of romance is present here in the form of her preparations for her wedding, this gives the book a warm heart despite some of the nasty, long-standing secrets that underlie the rest of the story. At the end of the book, Erica makes an intriguing discovery about a mystery in her own past that I look forward to her investigating in future. In the meantime, I recommend THE GALLOWS BIRD as a book by a natural storyteller that is both easy and pleasurable to read – and how nice to see the translator praised on the cover of the book, a far too rare occurrence in my experience.