Crime novelist has been forced to deny claims that she tricked readers into buying books she didn’t write herself
It is a gripping detective story typical of the queen of Nordic noir, leaving fans pondering the ethics of relationships and the dirty secrets of people with power and influence.
But for once, bestselling crime novelist Camilla Läckberg is not the author of this particular literary whodunnit, but its protagonist.
Läckberg, a star in her native Sweden who has been hailed as the country’s answer to Agatha Christie for her output of thrillers, kids’ stories and cookbooks, last week had to deny that she had tricked her admirers into buying books that were not written by her, after data analysis suggested she had used unattributed ghostwriters for some of her recent novels.
For an article in online magazine Kvartal, which became the talk of literary Sweden at this month’s Gothenburg book fair, journalist Lapo Lappin ran Läckberg’s novels through a “stylographic” data tool, which counts the most common words in a text, processes them using statistical methods and then compiles the results in a diagram.
The tool found a consistency of style in the mystery novels set in her hometown of Fjällbacka that first made Läckberg’s name, centred around husband-and-wife detective duo Erica Falck and Patrik Hedström. A more recent series of revenge thrillers, however, was mapped on a different corner of its diagram altogether.
Kvartal’s journalist fed books by Sweden’s eight bestselling crime writers into another forensic linguistics tool, JGAAP – the same AI-powered programme that in 2013 revealed Harry Potter novelist JK Rowling to have authored the crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
The programme noted a marked similarity between the style of Läckberg’s revenge novels The Golden Cage (2019) and Wings of Silver (2020) and the output of fellow crime writer Pascal Engman, who has worked as Läckberg’s editor at publishing house Forum. With another short novel, 2021’s Kvinnor utan nåd (Women Without Mercy), the programme identified Engman as the sole author.
“The overall conclusion from the data analysis strongly favours the ghostwriter theory,” claimed the article in Kvartal.
Rumours about Läckberg’s use of ghostwriters had preceded the article, first fuelled by Håkan Lindgren’s 2021 novel Ghostwriter, in which fictional crime queen “Milli Månsson” delegates her works to another novelist. Confronted with the theory in interviews, Läckberg had previously insisted that Engman worked only as her editor, “and nothing more than that”.
As the new claims hit Swedish headlines last week, the novelist took to Instagram to suggest the investigation into her work had been born out of literary snobbery.
“They say I am not a good enough ‘stylist’ and therefore of course do not deserve my success and so many readers,” she wrote in a post on Wednesday. “What they lack in that equation is that a writer should first and foremost be a STORYTELLER!”
In an earlier post, she had written “I have many times openly and publicly praised Pascal for helping me write in a way that was new to me”, saying she had needed Engman’s help to find a new voice for her new series of “Faye” revenge novels, which includes The Golden Cage and Wings of Silver. “It’s not a secret by any means. And obviously I have succeeded very well.”
Her post did not directly rebut the AI programme’s findings about the authorship of Women Without Mercy, and Läckberg’s publisher did not respond to a query asking if she categorically ruled out having used a ghostwriter for the short book.
Engman has strongly denied the accusation that he has ever worked as more than an editor on Läckberg’s books, telling Kvartal: “Anyone who has published a book knows that it is an editor’s job to work with the author’s text in various ways. For the sake of clarity, I strongly refute what you are insinuating.”
But the magazine’s claims have started a wider debate about Swedish publishing’s handling of its most successful export. Some critics have argued that the enormous global demand for Scandi noir means readers cannot realistically expect every word to be written by the author named on the cover. Others disagree.
“If I buy a book by a certain author I want it to be written by that author,” journalist Lasse Winkler told broadcaster Sveriges Radio. “Of course the experience of reading the book may be just as interesting, perhaps even more interesting. But as a consumer I expect something, because I have a relationship with this particular author. So it becomes a moral issue.”
Literary collaborations have become increasingly accepted in crime writing in recent years. Since the death in 2004 of Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, his “Millennium” series has been continued by crime writers David Lagercrantz and Karin Smirnoff. Bestselling American author James Patterson regularly collaborates with other writers to keep up an output of several books per year.
The difference, said Kvartal’s Lappin, was that those books credited their co-authors. “James Patterson is very open about the fact that he provides the plots, and other authors provide the words,” he said. “I can see the benefits of that approach. If an author were to merely credit their ghostwriter with a thank-you note at the back, that strikes me as false.”
Source: The Guardian