Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The small town has been a very popular setting for murder mysteries for a long time. That makes sense too as small towns have their share of secrets and everyone knows everyone. Those two facts can make for tension, suspense and a solid context for a believable crime fiction plot. Let’s take a closer look at one such novel today and turn the spotlight on Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess.
The novel begins in the small Swedish fishing village of Fjällbacka when Eilert Berg goes to the house owned by Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner to check on it. She’s only there on weekends and he’s agreed to keep an eye on it and start up the heat on Fridays so it’s ready for her weekend visits. When Berg gets to the house, he’s shocked to discover Alex’s body in the bathtub. He stumbles out of the house and tells the first person he sees, Erica Falck. Erica has returned to her home in Fjällbacka to sort through her parents’ things after their deaths. She also wants to make progress on a biography she’s writing. She’s especially shocked to hear of Alex’s death because the two women were best friends as little children. She alerts the police, and they begin their investigation. Erica finds herself drawn to the memory of Alex whom she hadn’t really seen for twenty-five years and decides to write a book about her – to begin to get to know Alex as an adult.
In the meantime, police officer Patrik Hedström and his team begin asking official questions about Alex’s death. At first it looks like a suicide but very quickly it’s proven that she was murdered. So Hedström starts to look among Alex’s family members, friends and colleagues tot find out who would want to kill her. At the same time, Erica is asking questions, too. Both of them come to the same conclusion: Alex was a very enigmatic person who never really got close to anyone, not even her husband Henrik. She was an intensely private person but more and more, Patrik and Erica begin to believe that Alex was keeping some dark secrets from the past and that those secrets may be the reason she was killed.
Erica’s life is complicated by two other things going on at the same time as the investigation. One is that she’s worried about her sister Anna. Anna is married to Lucas, a controlling abuser who wants to dictate her every action. She refuses to admit it though and instead of leaving him, she stays with him, hoping things will improve. In another development, as Erica and Patrik have more and more contact about Alex’s murder, they are more drawn to each other. Each has always liked the other but they haven’t done anything about it. They’re just beginning the awkward but joyful beginning of their relationship when there’s another death. Now Patrik and Erica, each in a different way, work to connect the two deaths. They discover that Alex’s death had everything to do with events many years earlier and with the network of small-town relationships among the residents of Fjällbacka.
That setting – the small fishing village and its culture – plays a major role in this novel. There’s a strong dose of “What will people think?” throughout the novel. For instance, that’s part of the reason for which Anna doesn’t leave Lucas. In small towns such as Fjällbacka, everyone knows everyone’s business and that fact is key to the story.
The physical setting is also an important element in this novel. Läckberg places the reader unmistakeably in the location and that adds to the story:
“The town was deserted and at Ingrid Bergmann Square there was no trace of the thriving commerce of the summer months. Visibility was good, without mist or haze, and Erica could see all the way to the outer point of the island of Valö, which was silhouetted against the horizon. Together with Kråkholmen it bordered a narrow passage to the outer archipelago.”
It’s also worth noting that the time of year – winter – is another element in this novel. The cold, the long dark nights and the snow add to the story’s mood.
This being a small-town crime novel, the characters in the novel also form a strong element. Both Patrik and Erica are intelligent, interesting people. Neither is perfect, but both are believable and have depths. Erica, for instance, is grieving the loss of her parents and worried about her sister and she deals with those problems in an authentic way. Patrik is dealing with the recent breakup of his marriage and the awkwardness of being “in the market” again. And then there are the other characters. For instance, there’s Patrik’s insufferable boss Bertil Mellberg, who just wants to be transferred back “up the pole” to Göteborg, and Alex’s parents Birgit and Karl-Erik Carlgren, who have to deal with the loss of their daughter as well as their own family history. These characters add an element of interest to the story as well as some realism.
The most interesting and enigmatic character in the novel is Alex herself. Through the perspectives of various other characters, we get to know some things about her. We do learn some of her secrets and we learn a lot about why she is the way she is. But we never get to see her as a complete, three-dimensional person. Rather, we see her as through the prism of others’ perspectives.
The mystery itself and the reason for the two deaths make sense when we know the truth. But this is a sad, sad story. Readers who like light murder mysteries will be disappointed as the truth in this story is tragic. We find out what that truth is so that the “whodunit” and “whydunit” questions are answered, but that doesn’t mean the story has a happy ending for all involved. Several lives are permanently scarred, and there are some aspects to this novel that will not be resolved. For several characters in this novel, it’s much more a matter of, “How do we go on?” than it is, “How do we make it all right again?”
That said, though, there are some warm, even funny moments. For example, at one point Patrik ‘phones Erica asking if he can stop over. Erica’s been busy writing all morning and is unshowered and certainly not in the shape to have a visitor in whom she’s romantically interested. It’s funny to see how she frantically showers, throws on something to wear and rushes desperately to look decent. When Patrik arrives, he wonders at her ability to look so beautiful without any effort! There are other light moments too.
We can also see how some of the characters really do care about each other and support one another. That too adds a bright thread through an otherwise very, very sad story. For instance, there’s Annika Jansson, secretary at the police station where Patrik works. She’s a warm, friendly competent colleague who’s established a friendship with Patrik. They care about each other and it shows. And there’s the love we see under the strain in the relationship between Erica and her sister Anna. They’re very different people and they do have their conflicts. At the same time though it’s just as clear that they care about each other and they have a bond.
The Ice Princess has a touch of the police procedural as it’s evidence-gathering, interviews and so on that lead to the truth more than anything else. It also has a strong element of setting and context. It’s a sad story of the way the past affects the present, made lighter by some funny moments and some solid characters. But what’s your view? Have you read The Ice Princess? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 4 June/Tuesday 5 June – The Legal Limit – Martin Clark
Monday 11 June/Tuesday 12 June – A Cotswold Killing - Rebecca Tope
Monday 18 June/Tuesday 19 June – Dust Devils – Roger Smith