Thursday, May 01, 2008
More from Sweden: Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess
The first of Camilla Läckberg's mysteries, The Ice Princess, has finally appeared in the U.K. (not yet in the U.S.) in English translation. I say "mystery" rather than "crime novel" because although The Ice Princess has all the elements of noir, it also has elements of the "cozy" and the mystery genre. As one of the characters says about the evil within a small town, "Hatred, envy, greed and revenge, all of it concealed under a huge lid that was created by sentiments such as: 'what would people say?' All the evil, pettiness and malice was quietly allowed to ferment beneath a surface that always had to look so neat and clean." That pretty much captures the duality: a bleakness and malice common to crime fiction and a calm surface more common to mysteries. Whether a small-town story falls on one or the other side of the divide is a matter of emphasis, and Läckberg's novel includes enough naivete and good-natured surface that it falls mostly within the frame of the cozy: within a plot that includes enough horrors for a Gothic novel, the main characters, writer Erica Falck and detective Patrik Hedström, and others react in ways that suggest their own distance from those horrors rather than a weariness or complicity that one senses among characters in noir or crime fiction. There are elements in the plot, also, straight out of Bridget Jones's Diary (a connection suggested by the author herself, within the narrative) that don't fit the noir genre very well. None of that is a criticism, and though my own standards should put The Ice Princess outside the boundaries of this blog, I'm reviewing it anyway--partly for autobiographical reasons. My grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from southern Sweden in the early years of the 20th century, along with her mother, sisters, and brothers. I knew all of them, including my great-grandmother, except for my great-grandfather (who is another story, for another time). In 1973, I had a chance to visit Sweden briefly, and went to the little town of Asarum to look for my grandmother's cousin, who had stayed in Sweden. I didn't find her, but did find her brother, then in his 80s, and had tea with him and his girlfriend. A few years later, I had a chance to live in August Strindberg's apartment, now a museum, in connection with my doctoral dissertation on his autobiographical novels, and also a chance to visit with a well-to-do Swedish family in their summer cottage at Midsommar. My relatives in the U.S. and in Sweden have not really been captured in the Swedish crime fiction I've read so far--which has dealt more with cities, with modern (rather than traditional) rural locations, and with middle-class or urban communities--much more the milieu of my second trip to Sweden than my first. The Ice Princess is the first of the new wave of Swedish crime fiction in which I've recognized small town Sweden (more so than in the Gotland novels of Mari Jungstedt or the northern novels of Åsa Larsson, which resemble Läckberg's books more than others of the Scandinavian wave) and the people I know from that milieu. None of the portraits in Läckberg's novel are exact resemblances to my relatives and other small town Swedes I met, but many of them share (sometimes not very pleasant) characteristics with those I knew. That said, some of the characters are little more than caricatures (like the comic chief of police) and others are sketched in to little effect (like the other cops). There's also a "polyanna" aspect to the story, in the naive responses of Erica and Patrik--but that's a common feature in Swedish crime fiction (noticeable in Henning Mankell and most others), possibly a realistic aspect of the portrait of a culture less acclimated to violence. And for me, Läckberg captures both the dark underside and the real daily life of her fictionalized village, making it rhyme, at the very least, with my own experience of a very similar village (though one that is, I expect, not even now experiencing quite the property boom Läckberg depicts). If I don't find The Ice Princess exactly corresponding to my taste in crime writing, I nevertheless am grateful to her for bringing these characters to life, in all their varied social graces, pretentions, convictions, pettiness, flaws, graciousness, and charm.