Confession: I’m an easily courted reader.
I knew I was going to pick up Camilla Lackberg’s book of three short stories, for instance, as soon as I saw the title: The Scent of Almonds and Other Stories.
Any crime fiction buff worth their salt will recognize the allusion to death by cyanide which – as Agatha Christie taught me – gives off the distinct odour of bitter almonds.
It was a bit of a dog whistle, and I went running.
The book itself – to mix my metaphors – is like a four course meal. Two courses are excellent, one is edible, and one could have been skipped altogether.
The first story – the eponymous ‘The Scent of Almonds’ – takes us back to Lackberg’s familiar stomping grounds of Fjallbacka. I enjoy her full-length novels, so I enjoyed visiting that world again. In this bite-sized trip, we focus on Martin, who usually takes a back seat to Patrick Hedstrom. Here, though, bad weather strands Martin on an island with his latest girlfriend’s family. Someone is murdered and, cut off from his colleagues on the mainland, Martin is forced to head up – and, essentially, jerry-rig – his first solo investigation.
No spoilers, I promise, but I loved the ending of this one because most of the characters are despicable human beings and Lackberg makes them squirm.
The second story – ‘An Elegant Death’ – was predictable and full of people I didn’t want to spend any time with. Nothing else to say about it, really.
Lackberg hits her stride again – somewhat – with the third story, called ‘Dreaming of Elisabeth’. In it, we descend into the maddening fear of a woman convinced her husband is trying to kill her. It becomes a him-or-me survival story with an ending you kind of see coming, but is all the sweeter for the anticipation.
‘The Widow’s Cafe’, though – the last story – is my favourite. It’s masterful. Quick and clean, almost flash-fiction, this piece weaves unthinkable abuse together with the power of redemption and revenge. There’s very little mystery – it becomes clear quite early on what’s happening – but Lackberg is in her element. She walks the line between horror and small-town gentility with a sure step. The result is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.
I would recommend this book to Lackberg fans and greenhorns alike. I think it represents both the best and the worst of her work, which makes it a perfect introduction. So get it. Then sit back and enjoy.