After the funeral of her parents Erica Falck, a budding writer, returns to her hometown of Fjällbacka. She has to clean her old family house, removing the personal effects of the deceased and preparing it for a possible sale; she also hopes to finish her latest book. There is nothing better than work if you want to forget your grief for a moment. Still death seems to follow her.
Soon enough Erica is an unwilling witness of a tragedy: she and one of the older inhabitants of Fjällbacka finds her childhood friend, Alexandra (Alex) Carlgren-Wijkner dead in a bathtub full of icy water, with slashed wrists. Alex’s family asks Erica to write a commemoration of her life for the local newspaper and that’s how starts her private investigation. Why Alex, a beautiful and sophisticated woman, an owner of a private art gallery in Stockholm, married to a very handsome and wealthy businessman, killed herself? Was it a murder as claims her mother? If so, why somebody hated Alex so much?
While Erica’s interest grows into an obsession, a local detective Patrik Hedstrom is following his own suspicions about the case. But it is only when they start working together that the truth begins to emerge about a small town with a deeply disturbing past.
Camilla Läckberg is often called the Nordic Agatha Christie. After reading The Ice Princess I can certainly see some similarities. Her debut novel, set in a small town, Fjallbacka, is full of respectable people who would go to any lengths to preserve that respectability; there is a crime mystery to be solved but you should rather call the book a ‘cosy’ mystery – more often than not it seemed to me that the identity of the murderer of Alexandra Wijkner was actually less important than the romance and love life of Erika and Patrik Hedstrom, the local police officer (insert here one big pink AWWWW). I admit the author knew how to create a real-life atmosphere of a small town where everybody knows everybody and their dogs, even those long dead. I liked also the fact that the characters were allowed to have their private ups and downs: fall in love, earn their living, quarrel with their siblings or parents, divorce, cheat on their partners, have other petty problems like a faulty car. It made them more human – it’s not that they existed just to investigate, find murderers or/and solve crimes. Still the cons prevailed because there were simply too many blunders, some of them quite unforgivable. In fact I believe this book would fare much better as a romance novel than as a crime mystery which is hardly a compliment.
While reading The Ice Princess I got an feeling that the author became so engaged in the thread describing the private life of Erica, Patrik and their romance, not to mention Anna, Erica’s sister, and her marital troubles, that she failed to notice that the psychological grounds behind the murderer’s motives were shaky to say the least of it. SPOILER, highlight or skip: I didn’t understand why a mother of an unemployed wino painter, a man who was the laughing stock of the whole Fjällbacka, would be so preoccupied with the reputation of her son to risk a murder. That reputation had already been tarnished almost beyond repair by years of drinking and depending on his mom to do shopping and clean afterwards. The whole premise seemed preposterous even if Vera, the said mom, was raised in another era and followed more conservative rules.
Of course it is a debut novel so, I suppose, it might explain it to a certain degree. Still there were other issues, connected to the one, mentioned in my spoiler. This is a murder mystery, with clues the protagonists investigate to solve it. The only problem is Läckberg told me about them after everything was explained. Yes, as a reader I was almost excluded from the investigation. When one of the characters finds the said clue they look at it, say, “A-ha! Now I think I know this-or-that!” and then move on without sharing with the reader. I bet Agatha Christie would never use such a low trick in her novels as it is completely against the rules of crime fiction. In fact it is flat-out cheating. In The Ice Princess it happened three times. The editor must have been napping or their brain froze like the poor Alex’s.
My last carping: too many of female characters existed in the story just to be easy victims or, occasionally, horrible shrews, sometimes both. Mind you it is a book written by a woman. Sure, many of those women finally stood up for themselves, but the relative absence of an assertive, healthy, happy female, more or less independent, was just…strangely discomfiting. The only woman who was praised for her strength and independence SPOILER, highlight to read was actually the killer. It just left me with an icky feeling, especially taking into account how many manipulative, cruel men were featured alongside. Once again, a little guidance from a good editor might have helped resolve this.