Scandi noir novel set on wintry coastal Sweden
Content warning: crime, abuse, social issues
Knowing that I was shortly going to be visiting some Scandinavian countries, I knew I needed to stock up on appropriate reading material. What better to start with than some Nordic noir? Luckily for me, the Lifeline Book Fair was on recently, and I managed to score a copy of a book by a very well-known Swedish author. We were staying on a very cool hostel on an actual ship, it was freezing cold, and on one afternoon it started hailing. The atmosphere couldn’t have been better.
“The Ice Princess” by Camilla Läckberg and translated by Steven T. Murray is a Swedish crime fiction novel about writer Erica who returns to her quiet coastal hometown to sort through her parents’ house after their funeral. However, overshadowing her loss is the mysterious death of her estranged childhood friend Alex. Found frozen in her bathtub after an apparent suicide, things don’t add up and police start looking for suspects. Feeling that their friendship ended unresolved, Erica’s writing is rekindled by a new project: a biography about Alex. Her own investigations lead her to team up with police officer and schoolmate Patrik, and together they begin to unpack the dark truth.
This is a classic example of readable crime fiction with all the elements: grisly murder, awkward but lovable woman protagonist, small community drama and terrible family secrets. Läckberg is a clear, no-nonsense writer who focuses on place and character rather than the forensic minutiae of other writers in the genre. The book is in some ways a little more of a cozy mystery rather than a thriller, though it is not without its grit. Läckberg addresses issues of alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, class, domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Murray’s translation feels very faithful, and he manages to capture elements of Swedish culture while maintaining the universality of the characters.
I think one downside to reading crime fiction that was written some time ago (this was originally published in 2003) is that what was clearly relatively groundbreaking back then feels extremely familiar today. Crime fiction is incredibly popular, and Läckberg’s style is obviously of some influence to more recent authors. Some of the twists I guessed, some I didn’t, but I think probably what frustrated me the most was how one-dimensional some of the characters were. There is quite a bit of Bridget Jones in Erica who is loves to shop and worries about her weight, though it is tempered by her warmth and care for her sister. All the men seem to be into sports. Läckberg uses a technique where she switches perspectives between her characters and contrasts their self-perception against the observations of others. While this brings some nuance to the book, it does bog it down a little.
An easy read that while simple in some ways is complex in others. An impressive debut, and I would be interested to see how her style grows in her later novels.