Monday, July 07, 2008

CRIME SCRAPS REVIEW: THE ICE PRINCESS BY CAMILLA LACKBERG




[From the front flap]

'Returning to her hometown after the funeral of her parents, writer Erica Falck finds a community on the brink of tragedy. The death of her childhood friend, Alex, is just the beginning. Her wrists slashed, her body frozen in an ice cold bath, it seems she has taken her own life.
Erica conceives a memoir about the beautiful but remote Alex, one that will answer questions about their lost friendship. While her interest grows to an obsession, local detective Patrik Hedstrom is following his own suspicions about the case. But it is only when they start working together that the truth begins to emerge about this small town with a deeply disturbing past.....'

Fjallbacka, on the west coast of Sweden, is another of those small towns where rich people from the city buy up the nice houses and then live in them for just few weeks in the year. The Ice Princess Alex, cool, blonde and beautiful appears to have been in an unlikely relationship with the local drunken slob  Anders Nilsson, who is a talented artist, and naturally he becomes the main suspect. 
But there are numerous other possible suspects including Erica's old boyfriend Dan, her English  brother-in-law Lucas, Alex's husband Henrik and local business man Jan Lorentz. 
The sub plots involve the burgeoning romance between Erica and Patrik, and the abusive relationship of Erica's sister Anna and her husband Lucas, who is forcing them to sell their parents house.  
Every small town seems to have secrets and hidden relationships and the death of Alex will expose those in Fjallbacka with devastating results.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg, translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray,  was the first of her four books that became Swedish No 1 best sellers.
It is a very gripping and addictive read that gets better and better as the author peels away the layers of the tangled relationships to uncover the shocking truth. 
The story deals with Erica's romance  with detective Patrik  in a sensitive way showing great insight into how those in their mid 30s with past histories would still react like star struck teenagers in that situation. There is even a little humour unusual for Nordic crime fiction in the character of the incompetent bombastic police chief Mellberg.
The plot is suitably convoluted and full of suspense, and one blurb calls Camilla Swedens's new Agatha Christie.
The final disclosure is shocking and I doubt even the most well read crime fiction aficionado would be able to guess the full solution to Fjallbacka's secret. Then why do I rate this novel below my top reads this year.
Well firstly the narrative switches from one point of view to another and then to another and I found this disconcerting. Also the male characters apart from Patrik are uniformly unpleasant, and in fact three of the characters seem like clones.

But once again I am impressed by the depth of Swedish crime writing and my minor criticisms of The Ice Princess are probably caused by the fact that the book I read previously was the superb Echoes From the Dead [Skumtimmen in Swedish] by Johan Theoren which won the Basta Svenska Debut in 2007. 

A note on blurbs:

The English version of The Ice Princess has a blurb on the front cover which says,
'Heart-stopping and heart-warming' Val McDermid.
Now this book is far from heart-warming in its subject matter, and the relationship that does qualify as heart-warming occupies only a very small fraction of the 393 pages. 
Do blurb writers read or skim the book? 
Do editors cobble together a blurb from a series of comments without considering if they give a true picture of the novel? 

7 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

Funny you should pose those questions today, Norm. I am trying to get to the end of Ann Cleeves White Nights. I enjoyed her Raven Black, though it was not quite the blockbuster one award and some reviews led me to expect, but this one is slow as molasses and I'm even starting to develop a personal animus against the characters for being boring and generally irritating me. Now, on the back of this book there are two blurbs, from Reginald Hill and Peter Robinson, and much as it pains me to say this, given my continuing great fondness for Hill and erstwhile pleasure in Robinson, they both read like tailor-made blurbs, akin to brief letters of recommendation, and as if neither writer is going to say anything negative about a colleague come what may. That, I think, is a large part of the problem.

"White Nights is a pleasure to read. Interesting characters, great setting, intriguing plot, and nothing to turn the sensitive stomach!..." (Hill)

"A most satisfying mystery set in an isolated and intrguing location. Jimmy Perez is a fine creation, and I hope Ann Cleeves' Shetland series will be with us for a long time to come." (Robinson)

I noticed the wording, stucture and tone of those blurbs before i stated reading. Stock footage. Reliable blurbs will not sound like those -- they will sound like concluding remarks or a few sentences, without suspicious elisions, from a published review. Compare authors' blurbs with review excerpts and this difference is patent. I wrote something about this re the authors' plugs on J.P. Morrissey's utterly appalling A Weekend at Blenheim, and I think now as then that the biggest problem is collegiality among authors. The solution, of course, is a simple rule: If you can't say anything bad, don't say anything at all, out of consideration for the potential reader/purchaser.

As so much else, the ultimate cause of all this is the death of the editor and the rise of the 'editor', the job of the latter being to commission, encourage ("It's just fine, now get on with it") market by fair means or foul ("Readers who love Agatha Christie will delighted with Thomas Harris"), and, if success is met, try to corral the author with a contract involving a big advance and short deadlines, the meeting of which poses a great risk of a decline in quality. What they rarely do is actually edit the damn book, but that's another story.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for your comments Philip, I am still laughing at your Christie/ Harris creation. It wasn't a real blurb was it? ;0)

Did you read this review below when I lost it as far blurbs were concerned, and vowed I would never read another book that bad just because I had agreed a review.

http://www.eurocrime.co.uk/reviews/The_Natural_Disorder_of_Things.html

Surprisingly Quercus are still speaking to me and arranged the Krajeski interview, perhaps they had forgotten my demolition of Canobbio.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Val McDermid said...

I'm responding to your comment about blurbs because you specifically mentioned me in the context of the Camilla Lackberg novel. I can't speak for other writers, but I do not blurb books I have not read. I do not blurb as a favour to friends. I do not blurb as a favour to my publisher. I do not blurb books unless I like them. So if you see my name on a book jacket, it is because I read the book and liked it. (Unless of course the publisher is being less than candid and is using a blurb or review line from six books back, something over which we reviewers and blurbers have no control...)
To address your specific point about my use of the word 'heart-warming': my overall response to this book was that it was warm and good-humoured. 'Bleak' is the word that springs to mind in the case of most Nordic writers -- THE ICE PRINCESS seemed to me to be a rare exception. I don't count the pages, I rely on my reactions as a reader.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

An attempt to transmit a follow-up yesterday met with an ill fate, I think, so, first and again, Norm, I remembered your Canobbio review well, the chuckle it gave me, and the refreshment of it. I recall you showed similar admirable restraint writing of Somoza's Athenian Murders. :-) The latter raises a side issue. The book was catnip to me, but the philosophical subtext happens to be something I am very well versed in, and I did wonder how those who are not would get on with it. My thought was that reviewers, while praising it, would have done well to warn of this, which none I read did. If I inadverently dove into a crime novel the full comprehension of which supposed, say, mastery of calculus or the minutiae of the internal combustion engine, I might be a bit miffed.

I am glad that Val McDermid mentions the matter of the use of "a blurb or review line from six books back..." because that may be the most pernicious puffery of all. If the quotation under the title on the cover is seemingly about a book, not the author, but does not include the title of the book in hand, it quite possibly isn't about that book at all. Not uncommon.

Otherwise, I think Ms McDermid's contribution rather brings home the point that these blurbs, honest though they may be, do not help. As I suggested in my earlier comment, the root problem is the editor. She writes that "'Bleak' is the word that springs to mind in the case of most Nordic writers -- THE ICE PRINCESS seemed to me to be a rare exception." I understand what she means by her characterization of Nordic crime writing, and let us accept that is so. I think most would. The problem then is that the full sentence she wrote is: "Heart-stopping and heart-warming, The Ice Princess is a masterclass in Scandinavian crime writing." The publisher, in choosing to quote only "Heart-stopping and heart-warming" under the title, and undoubtedly with considerable calculation, gave a certain notion of the nature of the work, whereas, had it been the main clause, the impression would have been quite other, for a reason Ms McDermid herself highlights. And so again, they may be honest and genuine as the day is long, but I stopped paying attention to them long ago, and in the hands of editors, they can be an absolute menace.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Val thanks for visiting,
I thought my comments were valid in view of the subject matter covered in the story. We all take something different from a novel but I do think famous authors such as yourself have a greater responsibility than amateur bloggers to give an accurate picture of a book as possible.
If I say read a book it is great two people might take notice, if you say a book is 'heart-warming' a 100,000 or more unsuspecting readers buy the book.

Philip, I agree it is sometimes difficult reading a crime fiction novel about a subject you know a lot about e.g. Weimar Germany in my case, to realise how it will seem to someone who has never heard of Roehm or Heines or the Strasser brothers.

As far as Val McDermid's contribution is concerned I am surprised and excited that such an important figure in crime fiction has visited my blog. Not that I don't value any of the readers but most are not best selling crime writers with a series on TV.

I might answer Val's comment in a post in a few days.

Val wrote 'My overall response to this book was that it was warm and good-humoured'.

I wrote 'there is even a little humour unusual for Nordic crime fiction' and there is a little humour, but I clearly did not read the same book as Val.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

I thought the central relationship was definitely much warmer than many in crime fiction, but the crimes themselves were nasty enough that I'd hesitate to describe the whole thing that way.

(And then there's the fact that the sweetest domestic scene is in the aftermath of very nasty domestic violence, so...)

I'm going to see Lackberg at the Edinburgh Writers' Festival, so I'll be interested in how she describes her work.

Having read the next two in the series (in a different translation), I would say that I'm a fan of the mixture of cosy-ish family drama plus nasty murder (surely not all cops have disfunctional home lives!), but it's definitely an acquired taste - and the awkwardness would stop me from describing the whole series as heart-warming. (Witness the domestic violence comment above, which continues in the next few books.)

Er, hello, by the way, from a long-time lurker!

3:11 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for your comments Lauren, and for lurking.
I am still collecting my thoughts together on the Ice Princess. Another very knowledgeable reviewer for whom I have great respect has called it a 'cosy comfortable read'.
I feel so strongly about child abuse and domestic violence that this has definitely influenced my opinions.
Don't get me wrong I enjoyed the book I just don't think it was warm hearted or cosy. I found the contrasting soft romance made the book more chilling.
Please let me know what Lackberg says about her work.

11:50 PM  

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