The Fjällbacka Murders are genre fiction of the best kind. They follow genre conventions but find ways to keep it fresh each time.
The success of the Millennium trilogy, also known as the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, in the United States, has had a benefit beyond bringing an interesting author and set of books and movies to American audiences—it also tipped off American viewers and readers to the fact that high-quality crime fiction, television, and movies are produced in languages other than English. Case in point: Camilla Läckberg, one of the most successful crime authors in Sweden (her first six books all became #1 bestsellers), and whose works have also been featured in numerous film and television adaptations in Sweden. Six of those adaptations are now available as The Fjällbacka Murders series from MHZ Networks, in Swedish with English subtitles.
The Fjällbacka Murders are genre fiction of the best kind. They follow genre conventions but find ways to keep it fresh each time, and use the stability of their formula to explore ideas, characters, and locations while still moving forward efficiently with each episode’s story. The characters and their stories exist in a world that is similar to our own, but doesn’t exactly correspond to it, but which makes perfect sense if you are willing to make the necessary suspension of disbelief required to enjoy most imaginative literature (and if you are unwilling to make that leap of faith, you probably don’t watch any American TV or movies either).
The central character in The Fjällbacka Murders is Erica Falck (Claudia Galli), a crime writer married to Patrik Hedström (Richard Ulfsäter), a police detective. They live in the small coastal town of Fjällbacka, which is as photogenic as all get-out and also home to a surprising number of murders (you might wonder how long it will be before the town is entirely depopulated, but that’s one of those conventions that you must accept, just as fans of Murder, She Wrote seemed largely untroubled by the fact that wherever Jessica Fletcher went, people started dropping dead).
Unusually, at least by the conventions of American crime fiction, the episodes of The Fjällbacka Murders are firmly grounded in the domestic sphere. The initial episode, The Hidden Child, begins with a birth (Erica and Patrik’s first child—two more will be born in later episodes)—followed by two deaths (Erica’s parents), the latter bringing Erica and Patrik to live in her ancestral home in Fjällbacka. Note for Americans—it’s a plot point that Patrik is taking paternity leave, a benefit mandated by Swedish law, to help care for the new baby. In Fjällbacka, Erica discovers she has a half-brother of whom she was entirely unaware, and investigating that anomaly leads her to uncover some less than savory aspects of the town’s past. Like most of the episodes, the story alternates between the present day and the past, the latter getting into what some of the town’s residents were doing during World War II. Another commonality this episode shares with many others is that the uncovering of a sexual secret leads to the discovery of matters of political, social, or criminal significance.
The Eye of the Beholder features the crew of a television program similar to Antiques Road Show coming to Fjällbacka, complete with a comically pretentious, womanizing host (Per Morberg) who becomes involved with Erica’s sister Anna (Sofia Zouagui). Soon an unexpected pregnancy is revealed, several people turn up dead, and Anna is placed in grave danger. As is typical of The Fjällbacka Murders, women play many different roles within the world of the show, both good and bad, and the casting reflects reality in that the town’s population is about half male and half female (many studies have shown that characters on American television and in mainstream American movies are disproportionately male). People of all ages also have important roles to play, and attractiveness (and sexiness) are not qualities reserved for the young.
Although Erica is a professional writer, in this series you seldom see her at work, and her profession often comes up only in asides where she’s explaining how she knows something—because she researched it for a book, of course! One exception to this rule is Friends for Life, which has Erica investigating the two-decades-prior disappearance of a classmate, with the intention of writing about it (an intention that does not please everyone she speaks to, understandably). The flashbacks get into teenage social dynamics, including bullying, while several murders in the present day lead Erica to discover what happened to her friend. This is an unusually twisty, plot-heavy episode, but it also offers some stunning views of the rock formations near the town (warning—if you have a fear of heights or edges, you may find watching this episode uncomfortable).
If, like me, you find insistent photographers both invasive and creepy, you’ll particularly enjoy The Sea Gives, The Sea Takes. Early in the story, studio photographer Stigge (Eivin Dahlgren) is found murdered in his studio, and as Erica investigates she discovers that perhaps Stigge’s carefully-cultivated image as a kindly old gentleman is perhaps not the whole story. In fact, he’s a long-time blackmailer, and Erica’s mother-in-law has been one of his many victims. In addition, Erica turns up memories of an old feud, Hatfields-McCoys style, between two families of lobster fishermen. Special bonus: the appearance of Harriett Andersson, who starred in many Ingmar Bergman films, in the cast.
Coast Rider begins with the attempts of Erica and Patrik, now parents of three small children, to take a romantic weekend break in the coastal town of Kungshamn. Of course, crime soon puts a stop to their vacation plans, as the bodies of two scuba divers are discovered off the coast of Kungshamn. Did they die accidentally? That wouldn’t make much of a story, and Erica (who conceals the fact that her husband is a policeman) joins the local ship museum association in an effort to learn more. Of course, there’s also a murder in the present day, and all three may be associated with a shipwreck in the 1820s.
The Queen of Light draws on the Swedish custom of celebrating St. Lucia’s Day (Dec. 13) with a procession lead by a girl dressed in white and wearing a wreath of lit candles (as a person with long hair, I have always found that last detail frightening). It’s an honor to wear the crown, so to speak, but in Fjällbacka it seems to carry a certain risk as well. Back in the 1930s, a St. Lucia unexpectedly ran from the process and plunged through the ice to her death, and in the present day, the current St. Lucia has also disappeared without a trace. At the same time, Erica and Patrik have a battle on the domestic front to convince Patrik’s mother that it’s time they celebrated Christmas in their own home, not hers. A special bonus in this episode is the appearance of Sven-Bertil Taube, who played Henrik Vanger in the Millennium films, as the town pastor.
The Fjällbacka Murders is distributed on DVD by MHZ Networks, with Set 1 containing The Hidden Child, The Eye of the Beholder, and Friends for Life on 3 DVDs, and Set 2 containing The Sea Gives, The Sea Takes, The Coast Rider, and The Queen of Light, also on 3 DVDs. The only extras on the discs are brief promos for other series available from MHZ. | Sarah Boslaugh