The Ice Child by Camilla Lackberg

I have to admit this book was an impulse purchase. In Waitrose. But I just really felt like some slightly generic crime, and The Ice Child fulfilled that wish. It is part of a series of books about Detective Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica, who is a writer, who both just happen to get caught up in wonderfully complex cases in their small Scandanavian town. In this case, a naked teenage girl suddenly appears in the road just outside of town, and is hit by a car. The car drives off, and the girl is found by Marta, out horse riding. The girl is badly wounded, and her eyes have been removed, as well as her tongue (Lackberg doesn’t spare her readers from the gruesome side of things). It turns out the girl is Victoria, a local teenager who attends the riding school owned by Marta and her husband Jonas – and who has been missing for several months.

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Patrik is part of the team investigating Victoria’s disappearance and that of several other girls in the area. His wife Erica becomes involved when an old case she is writing a book about suddenly seems to be connected to the missing girls. Add to the mix Jonas’ strange and unhappy parents, and you have a cast of characters filled with mystery and suspicion. The Ice Child is a story of life in a small town that has gone horribly wrong; of family secrets that have evolved into something much worse that any of the characters could imagine. I didn’t quite predict the ending – Lackberg manages to make it very twisty – but by the last third of the book I could see who was involved with the missing girls. It’s a fairly formulaic story with a few red herrings and a good dose of odd behaviour from several of the characters that could look suspicious. The best mystery for me was the old case the Erica is writing about – I couldn’t quite fit it together with the present day story until right at the end, which made it more entertaining, and it kept me reading!

The Ice Child isn’t the most challenging of crime novels, and I think the gruesome treatment of Victoria and the other missing girls was a bit unnecessary – the darkness of it jars with the small town setting, but not in a way that works. The gruesomeness was a bit over the top and ended up feeling a bit sensational, as the family secrets that are exposed are enough to entertain the reader and explain some of the mysteries. There were some great moments though, particularly in the examination of the roles of women as wives and mothers, and how these roles can take very different forms. The impossibility of knowing who someone really is also looms large over the events of the novel and we start to wonder if any of the characters can really be trusted. It’s a very twisty, turning story that unfolds slowly at first, and the dramatically as Patrik and Erica uncover more and more layers of truth.

I don’t read a huge amount of crime fiction so I am still working out what works for me, and I’m afraid I don’t think Camilla Lackberg is it. While I enjoyed The Ice Child it was a bit too formulaic for me, and the language was a little clunky – though of course that could be down to the translation. Either way my next crime novel will have to be something a little different and more challenging!

*

Published in the UK in 2016 by Harper.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, or Blackwell’s.

The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath

Mantle 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com
Mantle 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

The Bone Seeker begins with both the style and plot of quite a standard crime novel. Teacher and ex-polar bear hunter Edie sees Martha Salliaq on a Friday afternoon at school. Martha drops her bag and make up falls out; Edie notes this is unusual for an Inuk girl. She asks Martha if she is going anywhere special and the teenager is coy, excusing herself in a hurry. Edie wonders what she is hiding, and the narrative tells us this was the last time she saw her. For Martha, the mysterious young girl, is the inevitable murder victim.

The discovery of Martha’s body happens very early in the book, and the hunt for her is very short. Up until she is found I was reminded of Margie Orford’s Water Music, as in both stories a determined civilian woman takes on the case of a missing girl, a girl who is intelligent and well-liked, but who has secrets no one would ever guess. Both stories are also set in landscapes and societies that are ‘foreign’ to me as a reader – Water Music takes place is Cape Town, while The Bone Seeker is set on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic.

The location is a crucial part of this story. In the 1950s the Canadian government moved a vast amount of Inuit people from their homes in northern Quebec to the High Arctic, which incorporates Ellesmere Island. Officially the move took place in order to provide the Inuit people with better resources and better quality of life; but in fact they were not properly provided for and measures were not taken to make sure that life would actually be better in the north. As a result the Inuit communities were poor and insular, and a great resentment grew towards the Canadian government. In The Bone Seeker the Inuit are very suspicious of anything from the south and see themselves as entirely separate from the qalunaat (non-Inuits) who live with them in the north.

Edie is Inuk and understands the deep rooted traditions and beliefs within the community – that it is wrong to speak of the dead until a certain amount of time has passed, so that the spirit can leave the body; and that certain places are ‘haunted’, plagued with evil spirits. One of these places is the half dried up lake where Martha’s body is found. It is located on the site of a decommissioned Radar Station, somewhere that nothing grows and that no animals will visit. The Inuit people believe it is an evil place because of this, but Edie knows that its history as a Radar Station must have something to do with its being ‘off limits’ and somewhere that people do not like to go.

McGrath’s prose is clear and simple, with not too much flowery language thrown in for no reason. Her plotting is well crafted, though at times the suspense and tension melted into long, slow sections where you are just dying for the story to move forward (there is a fair bit of legal investigation too, and this can get a little muddled). The novel is very atmospheric however, with a palpable sense of both place and society. There is a lot going on, and it does get a bit muddled at times. There are a lot of different paths of investigation that Edie explores, and a lot of people involved, and sometimes the strands got a little twisted around each other. At the end it all slots into place, but I couldn’t help feel that some things got more attention while others that were just as important were left a bit in the background.

The only things that really bothered me were the horrific nature of Martha’s murder, which I found a little unnecessary as well as unexplained (given the nature of her murder I also think the bloody knife on the cover is not quite appropriate), and the fact that when her killer is actually discovered it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. By that point the conspiracy theories and government secrets have become the main focus of the story.

As I said, The Bone Seeker starts out as a pretty standard crime novel as Edie and her partner Derek, a police officer, investigate Martha’s murder; but it becomes much more than that when they start to look into the secrecy surrounding the place where she was found, and the interest that the military seem to take in it. Why do they cordon it off and try to take over the investigation? Why will no one talk about happened at the Radar Station before it was closed?

As it goes on the novel becomes more and more about the secrets kept by the military, the government and the Defence Department, as well as the deep injustices committed against the Inuit people. M.J. McGrath conducted a lot of research into what happened, and there is a lot of historical and legal detail as the mystery slowly unfolds, and it is revealed that the relocation was just the start of the Inuit people’s problems. I expected the ‘bone seeker’ of the title to be the murderer or perhaps a weapon, but it turns out to be something else entirely. You might be surprised.

*

Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 5th June 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

 

My First Proper Crime Novel: Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Pan Mac 2013 cover. Image: panmacmillan.com
Pan Mac 2013 cover. Image: panmacmillan.com

Is it ever wise to impulse-buy a book? Annoyingly the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. I’ve bought a lot of books over the years on the spur of the moment, both online and in bookshops that I’ve put on the shelf and then never bothered with again… luckily, that did not happen on my most recent foray into thoughtless purchasing of literature.

The journey between my new home in Oxford and my mum’s house is long and dull, and goes through Paddington station. The last time I made this journey I popped into WHSmith’s for a magazine for the train and came out with Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus.

I have read crime before, but they were always what you would call literary crime – literary novels with a crime element, but not really classifiable as being in the crime genre. However I love crime and mystery TV shows and films, so I reckoned I should try a proper crime novel.

I was attracted to the striking cover and the suggestions of a fairy tale, as well as the fact that Neuhaus has a very Scandinavian sounding name. She is in fact German and this is her first novel to be translated into English, though it is the fourth in a series. The series focuses on two police officers, Pia Kirchoff and Oliver Bodenstein, and Snow White Must Die follows them as they investigate the events following the release of a murderer from prison.

Tobias Sartorius leaves prison in 2008 after serving ten years for the murders of his friend Laura Wagner and his girlfriend Stefanie Schneeberger – a girl everyone referred to as Snow White. He returns to his home in the small German village of Altenhain (a real place that Neuhaus used as inspiration for the setting) and his reappearance instantly dregs up old issues and emotions. It is a very close knit place where everyone has lived and known each other for years and years, and Tobias’ release turns everything on its head.

Snow White Must Die is part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club this year, and there are a couple of short interviews with Neuhaus at the back of the book. She says that she chose Altenhain as the setting because a village is the perfect setting for a murder mystery – a close knit community where everyone knows everyone else, and both characters and events do not get lost in the rush and clamour of a city. She has utilised this perfectly, as the truth of the events in 1997 and the surrounding years is slowly revealed. It is complicated, but not so much that you get lost or annoyed; in fact it is perfectly clever and extremely well planned. Every character has a role to play, every person is significant in some way, as is every action.

When Tobias returns he discovers that his parents have lost the family restaurant and the farm because no one would go near the parents of a murderer; and that they have been divorced for several years, a fact they kept from him even when visiting him together in prison. Their entire lives have been destroyed by his conviction, and he feels an enormous sense of guilt.

Tobias’ father now lives alone in their house, which is dilapidated and unloved. A rival restaurant, The Black Horse, has opened across the road that no doubt contributed to the decline of the Sartorius restaurant. There is a new family now living in Stefanie’s house, and their daughter Amelie, only seventeen and working as a waitress at The Black Horse, hears rumours about Tobias’ return and becomes curious about the events of 1997. Everyone seems to have known him and the two girls, and everyone seems to have opinions. She becomes increasingly fascinated by how a few drinks at the village fair could have lead a well-liked young man like Tobias to murder one of his oldest friends and his girlfriend. Amelie begins her own investigations, asking people questions and trawling the internet for the truth. Tobias cannot remember what happened on the night of the murders; he is the only person who is glad Amelie is asking questions.

Pia and Oliver’s investigation builds when another young girl goes missing; this time it’s Amelie, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to Stefanie – ‘Snow White’. Everyone in Altenhain assumes that either Tobias or her friend Thies, autistic and mute, is responsible for her disappearance; but Pia is not so easily convinced. She is highly suspicious of the cruel and whispering residents of Altenhain who all dismiss Tobias as evil and Thies as stupid and odd and therefore dangerous.

Pia Kirchoff is a brilliant character; she combines the familiar territory of the headstrong, determined female detective with a normal woman trying to get planning permission to extend her house and advise her ex-husband about his new extramarital affair. She is extremely well paired with Oliver Bodenstein – he is grumpy and unhappily married, with too many problems of his own to notice the intricacies of Tobias’ story. But when he’s good, he’s good. He excels as an interrogator and knows how to pin someone down and get the truth out of them. He is intellectual and yet also a tough guy; Pia is these things too.

I warmed to these two characters immensely and cheered them on as they solved each little conundrum and raced to solve the next one. Neuhaus’ plot is complex and folded up into a tight ball, which is slowly unfolded, spread out and examined by Kirchoff and Bodenstein. Tobias is also an excellent character. He is dark and troubled, but also naive, fragile and bewildered by the new world he is thrust into.

I could not guess the ending of Snow White Must Die. I could not guess what happened in 1997 or how deep the secrets went. There is action right up until the last second, and nothing in this book is as simple as it seems – the people especially.

The next book in the series to be published in the UK is entitled Bad Wolf – and I will certainly be reading it.

*

Originally published as Schneewittchen muss sterben by List in Germany in 2010; and by Pan Macmillan in the UK in 2013.

The Empty Glass by J. I. Baker

The haunting 2012 hardback edition. Image: goodreads.com

Having read Lois Banner’s biography of Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, I was intrigued when I came across The Empty Glass in a magazine. The fact that it was about the mystery of Monroe’s death, but it was a novel, was very interesting. The cover also attracted me. It is eye-catching and graphic, but in some way also attractive. Having read the book it seems like a metaphor for Monroe’s situation at the end of her life – her dead eyes, face turned away, and a man so close to her. She looks unhappy and lost, and the lipstick writing screams of a desperate cry for help from a woman trapped behind an image.

Author J. I. Baker creates deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald as his narrator, and puts him on the scene at Monroe’s house, along with the police, in the hours after she died. He finds Monroe’s diary, in which she wrote the ‘truth’ about her affairs with Robert and Jack Kennedy. The diary is at the centre of one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding the star’s untimely death. Its contents, whatever they were, were certainly incriminating (at least for the Kennedys) and a lot of people didn’t want them getting out.

Fitzgerald is asked to track down a next of kin and looks in the diary for a number and finds one for ‘Mrs Green’, but whoever answers the phone claims not to know a Mrs Green. Fitzgerald becomes suspicious, and effectively begins his own investigation when he steals the diary.

Baker uses a lot of actual facts from the scene of Monroe’s death to motivate his narrator into investigating a possible cover-up or conspiracy. There were plenty of things that made her death look suspicious: she was found lying flat on her front, holding the phone – a position someone dying of an overdose would not have been able to maintain; the colouration on her body also suggested she had been moved after death; there was bruising on her hip, suggesting either violence or an injection; and of course, there was no water glass. At least, not when Baker’s Fitzgerald arrives at the house – one appears while he is there. The autopsy reveals no lethal amount of drugs in her system, meaning that she did not digest them – so how did they kill her? Both Banner and Baker posit that Monroe was given the lethal dose either in an enema or an injection. All highly irregular and very, very, suspicious.

As in real life (as Banner states), Fitzgerald finds that records ‘went missing’ in the weeks after Monroe’s death. The more he tries to find out the truth, the more he is hounded and accused. People follow him, they search his apartment while he is out, they threaten his son and ex wife. The only person he trusts is a journalist he met at the crime scene – but he’s not even sure if she’s worth trusting.

J. I. Baker
J. I. Baker

Baker writes in a typical – but still good – noir style that both engages and ‘creeps out’ the reader. I read this 352 page book in two sittings, proving just how compelling it is. That said, I did not necessarily ‘enjoy’ all of it. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads; as a book it is worth 5 but it was so distressing to read that I could not bring myself to say that I loved it. It would feel wrong. I do not love this story, I am fascinated by it. Similarly, Fitzgerald is fascinated by the mysteries of Monroe’s death. He does not enjoy his investigation, but he is compelled to continue it, no matter what the risk. But why?

The answer is similar to that of why the world is still entranced with Marilyn, why we still revere and admire her, why she still fascinates us. Her appeal was and is still based not only on her incredible beauty and attractiveness, but also on her obvious vulnerability and our collective urge to ‘save’ her. She was also a wonderful comic actress and very charming and funny. Plus, she wore amazing clothes and had fantastic hair. Even on a shallow level she is fascinating. I very much recommend reading an in-depth biography of Marilyn – Lois Banner’s is great because it approaches her from a feminist point of view but also a more psychological one, which for me worked very well. Either way, read something that examines Monroe psychologically rather than just gushing about her hair, make up, and wardrobe. Those are part of her psychology – but only a part. There is so much more.

The Empty Glass is a very troubling book. Not only is its subject matter disturbing, the journey that Fitzgerald takes is frankly terrifying. Knowing that the corruption goes all the way up through the LAPD and into the highest levels of American power only makes it all the more disturbing. Anyone with any affection for Monroe will find this book upsetting and personally I had to sit for a few minutes in silence once I finished it, and then hug my mum.

I do not think it is compulsory to read this book in order to fully understand Monroe (as much as one can 50 years after her death) but it is a very interesting book that if anything only prompts more questions. I for one would love to read (or for that matter, conduct) an interview with J. I. Baker and ask him about source material and how much he speculated or invented – and why he felt the need to write this book, in this form.

There is a website, emptyglassnovel.com, that is quite interesting; and Twitter accounts for Ben Fitzgerald (@monroedeath – subtle) and the journalist Jo Carnahan (@jocarnahan1). I find these Twitter accounts quite surreal and a bit off-putting. This along with the promise in J. I. Baker’s welcome DM to his followers that by visiting emptyglassnovel.com they might ‘even learn who killed Marilyn Monroe!’ is a little sensationalist and perhaps could be viewed as exploitative. It unsettles me in the same way that reading people saying they loved the book does. The marketing of the book makes you want to go ‘You know she was a person!’ – but the actual book does not. Baker – through Fitzgerald – treats Marilyn as a person and respects her, even if other characters do not. I think it is a brilliant book and very intelligent, but I cannot say I loved it, purely because it is so distressing and dark – and based in a reality of which we cannot know the darkest depths.

*

Published in the US on 19th July 2012 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin USA. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

What a funny little book.

I was unaware of Pia Juul until The Murder of Halland was kindly sent to me by Peirene Press, a fantastic independent publisher that “specializes in contemporary European novellas  in English translation.” Having been aware of them for a while, I was thrilled to receive a book from their latest series, ‘Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets‘. I love the idea of this. Peirene create little series of books, each of three volumes. So far there is ‘Female Voice: Inner Realities‘, ‘Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy‘, and now the ‘Small Epic’ series. Nine books in total, each carefully chosen for not only their success in their native countries but also for their unique appeal and unconventionality.

Peirene was founded in 2008 by Meike Zeirvogel. She chooses only the best European fiction for her readers. Pia Juul is a successful author in her native Denmark, and The Murder of Halland, her most recent novel, won the most prestigious literary award in Denmark, Den Danske Banks Litteraturpris. The Peirene blurb begins with – “Denmark’s foremost literary author turns crime fiction on its head.” Intriguing, no? I’m not a massive reader of crime fiction, but won’t say no to a good thriller, and this premise was certainly interesting. How had she turned crime fiction on its head? Was there some strange plot device? A surreal element? Coming to the end of this short book, surreal is definitely a word I would use to describe it.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

Our narrator is Bess, partner of the murdered Halland. They live together, but are not married, and seem to have a fairly ordinary life in a small town in Denmark. The night before the murder, they watch TV, Halland goes to bed, Bess works late and sleeps on the sofa. She awakes to find he has been shot in the square outside their house, and a local man is accusing her of the crime. Suffice to say, Bess is a little confused.

Some questions are answered, but poor Bess spends the rest of the novel asking and asking about the death of her partner, about her estranged family members, about herself. Once Halland dies, she seems completely lost; perhaps she was lost before, but his presence guided her a little and helped things make sense. Without him, she does not know what to do. Obviously devastated but completely disorientated by Halland’s death, Bess struggles to deal with the police officers who are investigating the murder, no matter how kind and helpful they are. She goes out one night, completely distraught, and becomes so drunk that a neighbour finds her outside the nightclub, lying in the grass. The neighbour, Stine, takes Bess back to her house. Bored by her small talk, Bess leaves and vomits on the doorstep. It is incidents such as this that demonstrate to the reader that thought Bess may be ‘fine’ she is not coping with Halland’s death at all well. It seems to have thrown her entire world off kilter.

Bess bonds with one of her neighbours, Brandt the dentist, in the time after Halland’s death. It is not clear why. At times her desperation creates a desire to kiss him, at other times she is happy to come across him on an early morning walk and look out at the fjord together. Brandt is interesting – he has a nameless lodger who keeps turning up for no apparent reason, and is looking after his sister’s dog, whom he does not particularly like. Bess is drawn to Brandt, despite being put off by the lodger and over-friendly dog (as a dog owner, I cannot work out why they don’t like the dog). She appears to find some kind of solace in his company, some refuge from her grief:

I could hear Brandt’s gentle breathing, sensed his presence without looking at him.

‘I love the fjord,’ I said, and held my breath.

‘Yes,’ he said, putting his hand on my neck. We had almost reached the churchyard gates. It was dark. His hand felt so good.

Amongst the chaos of her feelings, Bess feels calm with Brandt, though on the face of it he seems to offer little that is different from her other friends and neighbours. He does not say much, and so I suppose this is what appeals to her. There is obviously some kind of connection or closeness between them, though its exact form or state is never made explicit. Bess seems to live her life rather quietly, doing her best to get along and not liking a lot of fuss, noise and excitement. Juul’s writing reflects this. No matter what the scene, her writing style is very calm, and still and measured. She uses very simple descriptions, preferring to be precise and concise rather than waste words conjuring what the reader can already see in her sparse prose. A moment of narrative self-awareness (if that makes sense) that I loved is a perfect example of only the necessary being included in Juul’s writing – the opening of chapter 19:

I opened the door. Brandt’s lodger. I haven’t described him. I won’t bother now; it’s irrelevant.

The sparseness helps create a sense of disorientation, a sense that something is displaced and incomplete. It is irrelevant to describe the lodger partly because the reader has already gone this long without a description but also because Bess does not feel the need to describe his face, or his hair or clothes. What he looks like does not matter because after Halland dies, very little seems to matter to Bess. There are old family ties that she wishes to revisit but seems almost afraid of, and she hates it when her mother calls. She is a woman lost in every sense. Descriptions of people as well as places are sparse, but so are the descriptions of Bess’ feelings. She does not say ‘I was…’ and nothing is clear and obvious. She often snaps and shouts at people for no apparent reason, getting more worked up than necessary.

‘I have some aquavit as it happens!’ said Pernille, entering the room with a bottle and a glass in her hands.

‘Out!’ I shouted, ‘I don’t want any aquavit! Make me some coffee! If you’ve got decent coffee, that is!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ she huffed, and went away again.

Bess just doesn’t know what she’s doing. At Halland’s funeral she is grumpy and terse, ignoring everyone. She does not cry. At times she wonders who killed Halland and why, but the question does not seem to haunt or disturb her. She is more preoccupied with finding out if he was hiding anything from her, why his office is so uncharacteristically tidy, why Brandt goes missing.

The sparseness of the writing makes some moments vivid – like Bess looking out at the fjord with Brandt – but a lot of the time it creates a sense of disorientation and feels quite surreal. This means that the reader has a glimpse into Bess’ state of mind, but it also means that the reader does not always understand what is going on, what Bess is trying to do, where this story is going. No one seems to be a clear suspect, and even when one person seems like a possible culprit, nothing more is said of it.

I won’t spoil the ending, but there are a lot of unanswered questions – though, it seems, more so for the reader than for Bess. Though not everything is neatly concluded and wrapped up, Bess seems to come to some sense of calm at the end of the novel, as if everything in her head has suddenly clicked into place; or she is just tired of asking questions. A strange and surreal book, but one that is infinitely clever and definitely recommended.

*

Published by Peirene Press in June 2012.

Peirene Press are holding several events featuring the author Pia Juul. For more information, click here.