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the ice princess

20 june 2011

The back cover of the American paperback of Camilla Läckberg's Ice Princess promises that fans of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell will "devour" the book. And that may well be true, though it's no thanks to any similarities Läckberg's work bears to Larsson's or Mankell's.

Larsson and Mankell aren't much alike to begin with. Larsson's "Girl Who" trilogy is clean, logical, technothriller material where everything makes sense and all loose details are accounted for, down to the last piercing on Lisbeth Salander's body. Mankell's Wallander series (a small portion of his œuvre, but his best-known books) are full of unilluminated evil and blank, unmotivated depression.

The Ice Princess, by contrast, is as softboiled as a corpsestrewn murder mystery can get. Läckberg's protagonist Erica Falck frets about finding guys, given her spreading thirtysomething figure; her favorite fictional character is Bridget Jones, and when she's not finding dead bodies she muses on what underwear to don for a date.

Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thing, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for her tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all?
Lisbeth Salander does not worry about this kind of stuff.

Erica Falck, a writer of popular biographies of Swedish women writers, has moved back to her home town of Fjällbacka to write a book about Selma Lagerlof. She becomes embroiled in a web of murder that involves most of her friends from high-school days. A handsome cop (Patrik of the panty debate) joshes with her and then becomes her boyfriend. This is not Wallander so much as Murder, She Wrote for a slightly younger demographic.

I seem to be complaining about the chick-litty features of The Ice Princess, but honestly, I like Bridget Jones and I even used to like Murder, She Wrote in limited quantities. The Ice Princess uses more humor than most contemporary Swedish crime novels, to good effect. Granted that the contemporary Swedish Krimi is no barrel of laughs; but the Ur-procedurals of Sjöwall & Wahlöö can at times be caustically hilarious. Läckberg doesn't have their sense of humor, but she has a nice wry tone and likeable, self-deprecating characters.

A woman moving back to her sleepy home town and solving murder cases may remind one of Åsa Larsson's novels of the far north – but Larsson has much more energy and drive than Läckberg, and her characters are more intense, with greater needs. Nothing is really that wrong in Fjällbacka, at least by the standards of Scandinavian detective novels. "There hadn't been a murder here in decades," Patrik muses in the obligatory Swedish-murder-mystery manner (230) as the murders mount up. And in The Ice Princess, you can believe it: the town, despite some individual malcontents, is full of good, wholesome, earnest people.

The weakest aspect of The Ice Princess is that it's very much a "told," not a "shown," narrative. Late in the novel, for example, a minor character named Julia is revealed to be more key to the plot than we'd imagined. Läckberg rushes through Julia's backstory, informing us in the third person about what Julia was thinking and feeling about her awkward early years.

Julia had sensed it from the very beginning, because she came into the world shrieking. She had continued to scream and struggle against the world during her whole childhood. Julia had never missed an opportunity to behave badly. (330-331)
That kind of exposition isn't perhaps as weak as phoning it in, but it represents a certain filling it in. Actually Stieg Larsson does write a bit like that, but the stronger Scandinavians of the present day – Mankell, Åsa Larsson, Arnaldur Indriðason, and Kjell Eriksson – keep us much closer to the moment, and to their characters' immediate perceptions and feelings.

Whatever the weaknesses of The Ice Princess (her first novel), Läckberg is said to be a top bestseller in Sweden right now, and I can vouch for the omnipresence of her books in German and Danish bookstores. I certainly liked The Ice Princess enough to read it all with pleasure, and there may be better things ahead as translators turn her output into books I can read.

Läckberg, Camilla. The Ice Princess. [Isprinsessan, 2003.] Translated by Steven T. Murray. 2009. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.