Thursday, March 22, 2012

7. The Ice Princess

By Camilla Lackberg

All the evil, pettiness, and malice was quietly allowed to ferment beneath a surface that always had to look so neat and clean. Now that Erica was standing on the rocks of Badholmen and looking back at the snow-covered little town, she wondered in silence what secrets it was guarding.

I had heard mostly positive reviews about The Ice Princess, part of the wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers that have come in the wake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. I had originally bought this as a Christmas gift for my MIL, but she had already read it (and didn’t like it), so instead of returning it to the neighbourhood bookstore, I decided to read it for myself.

The Ice Princess is a murder mystery set in the coastal Swedish town of Fjallbacka, where the author hails from. Erica Falck is a modestly successful biographer of notable women who has returned to her hometown to sort through the belongings of her deceased parents’ house. While there, her old childhood friend, the beautifully enigmatic Alexandra, is found dead, her body frozen in a bathtub (the ice princess of the title) due to the furnace being broken on the day she died. Obviously, it’s a murder disguised as a suicide, since who would take a bath without hot water? Through various circumstances, Erica becomes involved in a personal investigation of her own. She also gets re-acquainted with Patrik, an old classmate and admirer, who also happens to be one of the local detectives on the case. As Patrik and Erica dig deeper into Alex’s history, they also discover that the quiet fishing town of Fjallbacka has dark, Lynchian secrets of its own.

An intriguing enough premise, I thought at first. However, I could see why my MIL didn’t like this book at all. For one, I was disappointed since I had expectations for a straight-up crime thriller, not a soap opera pretending to be one. The burgeoning background romance between Erica and Patrik was cringe-inducing, for the most part. For their first romantic date, Lackberg actually spoofed Bridget Jones. I suppose the intention was to be charming.  But for me, it came across as jarring and rather condescending, as if someone (the editor? the author herself?) thought some levity was needed in case the story was too dark and disturbing for general readers.

I did appreciate how Lackberg created a realistic, thirty-something female protagonist whom readers could identify with, someone who spent as much time worrying about her weight as she did trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s death.  Who was also human enough to worry about the ethical ramifications of exploiting Alex's story to make her breakthrough as a true crime writer.   That part was a little too self-referential for my taste, but at least Erica isn't without her foibles.

But then, when characters were not discussing serious issues at hand (in other words, making small talk), the dialogue was unbelievably facile. There were also a number of cornball moments which tended to involve Patrik. To demonstrate how psyched that a grown man is to be going out with "the woman of his dreams", he is either shown grinning “ear to ear” or singing out loud to “Respect” in his car. Some of the secondary characters were also laughably two-dimensional and/or convenient villains.  Llike Lucas, Erica’s wife-beating brother-in-law, or Patrik’s boss, Superintendent Bertil Mellberg, an overweight, sexist asshat with delusions of grandeur. He was basically a loathsome yet harmless character, but for reasons unknown, Lackberg thought it funny to bring up Bertil’s comb-over every time he appeared in the narrative.

At first I had thought the lack of sophistication and awkward phrasing was due to the translation to English. But I realized that Steven T. Murray also did the English translation for the Stieg Larsson books, which I thought was rather competent. So I can only attribute the cornball writing to Lackberg. Like Kathy Riechs, Lackberg can construct an engaging plot and a strong sense of place, but a clever wordsmith she is not. What I said about Déja Dead also applies for The Ice Princess, that the attempts at humour or irony are rather pedestrian, where [the author] comes across as more square than, say, hard-boiled. Bad writing is a liability in genre fiction since it prevents the reader from fully immersing oneself in the author’s universe. This is unfortunate because Lackberg has created such a vivid backdrop of this quiet seaside town with a tragic history. And she almost succeeds… until she tries to be witty.

What did save The Ice Princess was an engaging plot that was complex enough for me to want to find out what happens next. A number of times, when a character discovered some vital piece of information, the author relied on the device of withholding knowledge until a later chapter, but I was fine with that, as that wasn’t nearly as annoying as the terrible dialogue. It does not make for an efficiently paced novel, which is not a bad thing, as the narrative moves along at its own leisurely pace. Even though I was able to guess a few plot twists, the big reveal did come as a bit of a surprise for me. So it was satisfying in terms of plot construction and theme. As one reviewer noted, at the heart of The Ice Princess is “the concept of secrets, and how they will always end up coming to light, no matter how deep you try to bury them. Lackberg takes us on a twisty path to uncover those secrets, and it’s fun to be along for the ride.”

Sadly, however, Lackberg’s lack of style left me ice cold. At best, I would recommend this as an airport novel, as it definitely belongs to a lower tier compared to superior crime books of its ilk.

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