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The mystery of Fjallbacka

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The Washington Post/Newscom

FJALLBACKA, SWEDEN - MAY 31: The city of Fjallbacka, Sweden lays below a rocky hill. The town is mostly known as a tourist summer destination.(Photo by Steve Vickers/For The Washington Post)

Arriving in Fjallbacka, a remote fishing village with fewer than 1 000 permanent residents, the first thing you spot is the graveyard. Just follow the steady trickle of motor homes off the main road and down towards the seafront, and you’ll see an ocean of grey headstones pointing up into the briny air.

Is this place just old? Or could there be some truth in the novels by Swedish writing sensation Camilla Lackberg, who casts this quiet community on Sweden’s west coast as a hotbed of grisly murders?

I’d borrowed a Volvo and driven from Gothenburg, 130km south, passing creaky wooden windmills and green fields scattered with golden dandelions. The plan had been to take the bus, but even the well-oiled Swedish transportation system can be sluggish on these winding coastal routes. I pulled up near the red granite church in the middle of the village, where Torbjorn – a tall, blue-eyed former police chief – was waiting to tell me more about the place.

Torbjorn is one of eight local guides who have been showing fiction fanatics around the village since 2007, when two of Lackberg’s crime thrillers were first televised in Sweden. Back then, the community braced itself for a tidal wave of tourists. But as Torbjorn admitted, the TV shows weren’t that great. So apart from the usual summer rush, when Swedes and Norwegians arrive by the yacht-load, the tourist onslaught never came.

This time, however, things could be different. A Swedish production company is in the village filming Fjallbacka Murders, a collection of 10 new TV movies based on the characters in Lackberg’s books. The movies star two of Sweden’s best actors (Claudia Galli and Richard Ulfsater), and Lackberg – now one of the hottest crime writers in the world – is one of the co-producers. Channels in 10 countries have signed up for the rights to air the movies, and theatres already have their eyes on two full-length features that are being filmed concurrently. No surprise that local tourist agencies are working hard to promote Fjallbacka as an exciting (and murder-free) destination.

The first TV movie won’t hit Swedish screens until Christmas, so there’s still a relatively slow drip of tourists. Torbjorn and his team are already thinking about training a group of younger guides to run tours based on Lackberg’s claustrophobic thrillers.

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FJALLBACKA, SWEDEN - MAY 31: A man walks under a series of boulders in the town Fjallbacka, Sweden.(Photo by Steve Vickers/For The Washington Post)

The Washington Post/Newscom

“We guides are getting too old, and we realise that we cannot go on guiding for ever,” he said. Having moved here in 1944, he still cheekily describes himself as a newcomer. “We know a lot about Fjallbacka, but all of us are over 70, and it’s very hilly around here.”

Not that the slopes have slowed him down. Within minutes he was leading me past red-painted houses, cutesy little convenience stores and Fjallbacka’s only hotel, which hugs the village’s main junction. Then we were clambering over the slippery rocks that line Kungsklyftan, a plunging gorge where, in Lackberg’s book The Preacher, a young boy finds a woman lying dead.

The worst discovery I made was a splatter of green bird poop on the rocks, but the colossal boulders hanging above us like giant suspended raindrops did make the place feel faintly unsafe. “Don’t worry,” Torbjorn said. “They’ve been up there for thousands of years.” Experts believe they rolled in with melt-water at the end of the last ice age.

For a bird’s-eye view of this geological quirk, we climbed the staircase that wraps around Vetteberget, the 70-metre-high outcrop that looms over the village.

Halfway up, Torbjorn paused and pointed to a speck among the mass of islands stretching before us. “There’s Badholmen,” he said with a smile. “Where a man was found hanging from a diving board.” His eyebrows arched as his hands tugged at an imaginary noose around his neck.

Before I could react, he was off again, bounding up towards the top. I knew that he was probably referring to something in one of Lackberg’s books, not a real-life killing. But as I climbed, I couldn’t help wondering why the author would choose this village, where locals meet you with a cheery smile rather than a murderous grimace, as the setting for books that wade through such murky themes as death, jealousy and revenge.

“Fjallbacka is just the perfect spot for a crime thriller,” said Lackberg, who lived in the village until age 17, when she left for university in Gothenburg. “It’s small, quaint and very beautiful, but everybody knows everybody. It’s very important to keep up appearances, and everybody’s hiding something.”

A similarly close-knit community features in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which brought worldwide attention to the Swedish crime genre.

Since Larsson’s death in 2004, several contenders have emerged, but none has been as successful as Lackberg, who has now sold more books than Larsson in her native Sweden. She thinks that Swedes who write good books will continue to attract readers.

“People around the world are very curious about Sweden,” she said. “There seems to be this image of Sweden that says we have this perfect society, with no poverty, no crime and things like that.

“There’s a lot of interest in people seeing that, oh, okay, they do have the same problems we have.”

Lackberg still recognises Fjallbacka from her youth, when Swedish megastar Ingrid Bergman, who often spent her summers there, was pictured cradling the future crime writer in her arms. “When I think about Fjallbacka, I remember going out with my dad on a sunny summer day and just going around the archipelago, hearing sea gulls and swimming,” Lackberg said.

“My father had this old wooden boat, and the sound from those kinds of boats still makes me think of my childhood.”

But life in Fjallbacka hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The village’s location on a wild and wind-swept stretch of coastline gave it a reputation for icy winters and treacherous seas, which could easily swallow up sailing boats and their crews. The ocean could also give life, in the form of a typically Swedish fish: herring.

“We’ve had ‘herring periods’ in Fjallbacka approximately every hundred years, at least since the year 1200,” Torbjorn explained.

The story goes that for several months of the year, for up to 50 years in a row, the sea became so full of herring that villagers could walk down to the shore and pull their next meal out of the water with their hands.

Even so, the herring season was short compared with Fjallbacka’s long, freezing winters, and to make sure that supplies were strong, locals started preserving the fish with salt. Eventually the salt ran dry, forcing the fish factories to import it from abroad at great cost. Only when some bright spark discovered that herring oil could be used for street lighting did desalination turn to economic salvation, and by the end of the 19th century, Fjallbacka’s fishy fuel was powering the bright lights of Paris.

One day the herring stopped coming altogether. People started to leave the once-busy fishing port. Those who stayed were forced to sail out in search of shellfish, battling waves, ice and the powerful currents that sweep past the rocky islands offshore.

Standing by the harbour in the summer, with mild air pouring in off the North Sea, it’s difficult to imagine such hardships. Boats weave effortlessly from one place to another, like the plot of a good murder mystery, and a ferry shuttles tourists to the car-free Weather Islands, 16km out to sea. The solitary wooden guesthouse there, which serves a boozy mussel soup with mountains of shrimp and crayfish, makes a journey worth the effort.

Following the seafront road south of Fjallbacka to the nearby village of Hamburgsund, you’ll pass hand-scribbled “Shrimps for sale” signs that reel in hungry drivers. Nearby are woodcraft stores and antiques halls to explore. And, as anywhere in rural Sweden, the real pleasure comes from breathing in the pure air and drinking in the views.

I was feeling content out here by the sea, but I still hadn’t asked anyone about the real-life crime rate. Who better to turn to than Torbjorn, who had 40 years’ experience in the local police force? He’d just finished running through the list of Lackberg’s fictional murder locations, now printed on a tourist map of the village, when I asked: “Does anything terrible really happen in Fjallbacka?”

“No, no, definitely not,” he answered with a laugh. And then he thought for a couple of moments. “Well, we lost one man.”

I later found out he was talking about award-winning Swedish film director Daniel Lind Lagerlof, who disappeared in October while scouting locations for the new Fjallbacka Murders series. He was working on cliffs just north of the village, and police believe that he fell to his death.

As Torbjorn said: “Sometimes things happen, even here.” – The Washington Post

lVickers is a freelance journalist and guidebook author. His website is www.stevevickers.co.uk.


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