The story of Erica, her partner Patrick (the local deputy police chief) and her troubled sister Anna, begun in The Ice Princess, continues in this excellent second novel. Erica is a much more domestic character in The Preacher than she was in the previous novel, as she’s about to have a child and is enjoying a last couple of weeks at home, on sick leave from her job, before the baby is born. She’s blissfully happy with Patrick, who is warm and sensitive, and relieved that Anna has escaped her abusive husband Lucas and seems to be starting a new life with her two young children.
Events in the small town of Fjallbacka are less tranquil, though, with the discovery of a body of a murdered young woman in a cave on a local farm. This crime is compounded by the fact that the body is lying on top of two skeletons. With Erica’s help, Patrick soon identifies the skeletons as belonging to two young women who went missing 24 years ago. The new victim, however, is much less easy to identify; Patrick and his colleagues have a frustrating time trying to find out who she is – but eventually old-fashioned police work provides the breakthrough that ties together the new crime to the old.
What’s all this got to do with a preacher, you may be asking? Patrick is convinced that an extended local family is involved in the crime or crimes. When the two girls vanished all those years ago, Gabriel Hult contacted the police to tell them that he’d seen his brother, Johannes, in his car with one of the victims on the night she disappeared. Johannes was the prime suspect until he was found hanged in his barn, presumably having committed suicide in remorse. Gabriel and Johannes are the sons of the titular preacher, Ephraim Hult, who as a young man had made money by travelling round and using the two boys to “heal” gullible people of various ailments. At about the time the lads reached puberty, Ephraim announced that the gift had deserted the boys and retired from his circuit – marrying a rich woman and, when he eventually died, leaving a fortune to taciturn Gabriel, and nothing to the family of the handsome, free-spirited Johannes. Resentments have simmered, and sometimes boiled over, between the two families ever since.
Most of The Preacher tells the story of the tortured relationships of the Hults across the generations – wives, sons, daughters and grandchildren. Patrick is convinced that the answer to the mystery lies within the family’s secrets, but he can’t make much headway before another young woman goes missing after hitching a lift into town from the local campsite. Conscious that time is ticking away, Patrick is desperate to find the missing young woman while at the same time torn by his responsibilities to Erica and the imminent birth of his own child.
The Preacher is a great read, and has many things to recommend it. Above all it is a good story, packed with incident and paced revelations. One of its strengths is that most of the events are seen with the humanity of Patrick and Erica – Erica’s increasing concern for her sister and her inability to stand up to various freeloading visitors who want a free summer holiday, as well as her anxieties about motherhood provide a warm background to the very cold, unsentimentally told events of the novel. Patrick is a much more rounded character than he was in The Ice Princess – he’s hard-working, talented as a policeman, has empathy with his victims and has a charming introspection and good nature. Another plus is the depiction of the police colleagues – each character has his or her own foibles and the reader becomes absorbed in the routine and interactions of the cops.
The Preacher is a good mystery story, very well translated. Although there are too few characters to make the ending a complete surprise, Camilla Lackberg (pictured) keeps all the balls juggling in the air to keep the reader guessing as to the details almost right to the finish. Although the ending of the book is exciting, it is also very bleak, and I found the details of the motivation of the criminal not all that convincing. These are minor disappointments, though. In the main, the book is a great read: as well as tight plotting, the author is particularly strong on her depictions of small-town dynamics, the interactions among the police, and the domestic story of Patrick and Erica, which is left nicely balanced for the next novel in the series. (There are six so far, all of which have been bestsellers in Sweden.)
Other reviews of The Preacher:
Steven T. Murray, the excellent translator, writes about the book.