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International Mysteries

The Ice Princess, Camilla Lackberg, Pocket, $7.99.

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Lackberg is getting the big push in the wake of hugely popular fellow Swedes like Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson, and apparently she’s wildly popular in her native Sweden.  Like Mankell, her work owes a debt to some of the great British writers of contemporary crime fiction - Ruth Rendell and P.D. James spring to mind - but she doesn’t quite have their tight pacing skills.  While I enjoyed this novel very much I was conscious as I read it that I was reading it in translation, and I was often wanting her to hurry things up a bit, though I wouldn’t really call her story telling style languid.  She’s capable of some stunning bits of psychological insight, however, thus the comparison to James and Rendell.

The story itself has a terrific premise.  Erica Falck, returned to her childhood home of Fjallbacka to clean out her parent’s home after their deaths, happens to be the person who finds the dead body of her childhood friend, Alex.  Coincidental, yes, but Lackberg manages to make Erica’s encounter with Alex’s body seem completely believable. Alex’s frosted body in the tub, wrists slit, is a haunting and creepy image that carries through the entire novel.  It’s never far from your reader’s mind, and to keep it fresh, the author intersperses vignettes told from the killer’s? - Alex’s lover’s? - point of view that describe the dead body (and the living one) in some detail.  And of course while it appears at first glance that Alex’s death is a suicide, what mystery novel actually centers on a death by suicide?  Alex’s death is of course a murder.

Erica is a writer, specializing in biographies of women writers, and she’s working on one as she cleans out her parent’s house.  However, Alex’s story so captivates her that she begins to write about it, thus drawing herself into the investigation, as does her budding relationship with the policeman in charge of the case.  Her history with Alex is also problematic and shades the story - they had been girlhood friends, then drifted apart for no reason Erica could ever fathom.  As Erica works away at this puzzle, she gets closer and closer to the heart of the mystery.

Sidebars include a look at Erica’s sister’s troubled marriage; her relationship with the policeman; the new boss at the police station, who nobody likes; and the odd and unexplainable relationship Alex apparently had in secret with a local painter who was better known as a town drunk.  Lackberg’s explication of all these various ties and relationships is sensitive and detailed, but I wished sometimes that we weren’t along for the cup of coffee or piece of pastry as she goes about her business.  It slows down the action.  On the other hand, a nice passage like this one makes it all worthwhile:

All the emotion in the room made the air feel supersaturated, but at the same time it felt as if they were doing some spring cleaning of the soul.  There was so much that had gone unspoken, so much dust in the corners, and they both could feel that it was time to take out the dust mop.

“Spring cleaning of the soul” is such a lovely phrase and idea that I was willing to put up with some of the side trips Lackberg takes in telling her story, which ends up being a compelling and well thought out one.  I’d be willing to revisit Erica and Fjallbacka.

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