It’s a fine thing for a reader to expand his tastes, isn’t it? Having focused on classic mystery novels my entire life – and almost exclusively so over the past two years – it seemed like a good idea at the time to sign up for that Nordic Crime Fiction course at Stanford University.
If you have been following this space, you know that things didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped. (Check out my progress here and here.) I can’t say that after this I will never read Scandinavian crime fiction again. The first Hans Olav Lahlum mystery, The Human Flies, is sitting on my shelf, and Kate at Cross Examining Crime raves about the guy. But as several fellow readers have explained, Northern crime took a decidedly dark turn when Sjowall and Wahloo began their Beck series – and they happen to have been the first authors on my reading list. It seems like Lahlum is fighting this trend . . . at least I hope he is. I’ve also learned that there is a body of classic Scandinavian crime fiction out there – authors like Maria Lang, H.K. Ronblom, Vic Suneson and Stieg Trenter – provided you can find English translations. (I know a few of Lang’s books can be found on Amazon.)
Generally speaking, the books I have read – or skimmed (sorry, Smilla) or skipped altogether (apologies Mr. Nesbo) – have not been mysteries at all but rather crime novels, police procedurals and thrillers. So it was with a sense of relief that I approached the final novel on the list – Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess – and found that here we are treading in more traditional waters, even if the water is frozen solid and packed with snow on top! In The Ice Princess, we leave the chilly cities behind and venture into a village not unlike Christie’s St. Mary Mead or one of the Midsomer townships and wallow deep into a whodunit.
Lackberg has taken Sweden and the outside world by storm. Here’s what a reviewer for The Washington Post had to say about her:
“ . . . the greatest unsolved mystery in the mystery world is no longer what happened to Agatha Christie during her 11-day disappearance in 1926, but, rather, ‘What’s up with the Swedes?’ And, speaking of Dame Agatha, here’s a young Swedish writer who’s being hailed as ‘the Swedish Agatha Christie.’ Purists out there will snort in derision, but Camilla Lackberg is very, very good. Her novels are outselling those of her late countryman Stieg Larsson, and if she keeps producing mysteries as richly textured and downright breathtaking as her latest . . . who knows? Maybe, one day, we might be identifying Agatha Christie as ‘the British Camilla Lackberg.’”
This is a common marketing ploy for nearly any modern female writer of “traditional mysteries,” yet to me they are fighting words. In January, I wrote a post about the trend of identifying modern women mystery writers as “the next Agatha Christie.” Rather than offer you a three-thousand word litany of complaint, I thought that I would use this examination of Lackberg’s novel, and the comparisons she draws to Christie, as a chance to continue the discussion about what constitutes a “fair play” mystery that has been raging over at The Invisible Event, my buddy JJ’s most excellent blogspot, for a while now (and shows no signs of ebbing.)
On the surface, I can understand why Lackberg might be hailed as “Sweden’s answer to Agatha Christie.” First of all, there’s the success factor. Lackberg is the most successful author in Sweden, having sold over four million books to eight million inhabitants; this does not even begin to take in her international sales. Christie is the most successful novelist of all time. Her books have sold more copies than any other book ever except for the Bible and Shakespeare. Even if Lackberg’s numbers don’t yet come close, she is a newcomer; suffice it to say, the two authors share an aura of popularity.
Lackberg herself has contributed to this comparison. In at least two interviews I watched, the author tells the same apocryphal story of finding her first mystery novel to read on her father’s bookshelf at the mere age of seven or eight. It was Christie’s Death on the Nile, and it inspired the young girl so much that, within three years, she had read the entire Christie canon! It’s a lovely tale of inspiration, and it paves the way for critics and fans to draw comparisons between the two authors.
Then there’s the setting. The series of books featuring the sleuthing team of Erica Falck, successful author of biographies and crime fiction, and her romantic partner, police detective Patrik Hedstrom are set in a real time village: Lackberg’s home town of Fjallbacka (also home to screen legend Ingrid Bergman). The novel is populated with a social hierarchy of rich folks on the hill, fishermen at the docks, and working stiffs struggling through the snow-filled streets of the town. Although much is made in The Ice Princess about nothing ever happening there, making the police generally unfit to investigate a murder, it turns out that Fjallbacka is a hotbed of seething passions and long-buried secrets, with a killer lurking around every corner. This may be bad for the citizens of Fjallbacka, but it is a crime writer’s bread and butter, a fact shared by both Christie and Lackberg.
Finally, based on my reading of The Ice Princess only, I surmise that Lackberg deals in the concept of the closed circle mystery rather than the standard procedural. I get the sense that, after this debut, Erica takes a secondary investigative role to Patrik, given his position as an official police detective, but that each novel follows a finite group of characters, slowly unveiling a lot of previously unknown information, until somebody we have already met is unmasked as a killer.
But these are all relatively surface matters. When one conjures up the name of Agatha Christie, one has certain expectations of a tightly plotted novel and a mastery for misdirection. The argument is raging at The Invisible Event over whether Christie played as fair as, say, John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. I suggest that the nature of her mysteries and how they are clued is so different that it’s almost unfair to compare their styles. Whether you prefer the technical aspects of a Carr locked room mystery or the way Christie can drop a clue into seemingly inane conversation, the fact is that both authors can leave you gasping at the end, shaking your head and muttering, “But of course! Why didn’t I see that?”
Does Lackberg even come close to such cleverness? She most assuredly does not. The question then arises over whether modern mystery authors even want to focus on tight plotting or delivering a puzzle-centric novel to readers. I would hazard a guess that this is not the main focus of most of our present-day “A” list mystery writers, including Lackberg. Perhaps my beef over her comparison to Christie should be with the publishers who market a novel this way. Yet I can’t help wondering why these same publishers hearken back to Christie again and again and yet do not publish more traditional-style mysteries. I’m not asking for historical mysteries set in the 1930’s. I do understand that we live in a technical age and detective methods have changed. I accept that modern authors are more psychologically oriented in their approach to character and that modern depictions of sex and violence are going to be more graphic. To my mind, however, none of this precludes the possibility of producing first-rate mysteries in the classic, fair play style.
What this requires is the author keeping the reader apprised of all the information he needs in order to solve the mystery, usually through the detective, who must learn all these things. Ideally, this is done so cleverly that the reader fails miserably at the task and yet understands immediately upon reading the solution how each clue, fairly delivered, falls into place when looked at the right way. The reader’s pleasure at this exercise is increased by the way the author taunts us: the character who stares at something in wondrous comprehension just before he becomes the next victim; the presentation of a perfectly logical – yet utterly false – solution that satisfies in every detail but one; the detective’s “aha!” moment when she puts all the clues together, shakes her head and murmurs, “How could I have been so blind?”
These moments actually occur over and over again in The Ice Princess, but they are frustratingly un-fair play! Here’s the plot:
Author Erica Falck returns to her family home of Fjallbacka upon the tragic death of both her parents in a car accident. Her younger sister, Anna, is married to an abusive Englishman who is strong arming Erica to sell the family home so that he can take his wife and children back to Great Britain. Erica is late completing her newest in a series of biographies of famous women, something she is frankly tired of writing about. And she is a mess in the personal department: her ex-husband Dan lives with his jealous new wife, Erica hasn’t found a decent replacement, and she spends a great deal of time thinking she is getting fat.
Then Erica is flagged down by a neighbor who has discovered the body of Erica’s childhood best friend, Alexandra Wijkner, in her home, her naked body lying under frozen water in her own bathtub, wrists slashed. What might appear a suicide is quickly ruled a murder, and Erica feels a strong desire to investigate, not only because she had lost touch with Alex, but because she sees the possibility of writing a new kind of book – a crime expose. Her detective instincts are further raised when she meets Patrik, the cop put in charge of the case who has known – and unrequitedly loved – Erica since they were children.
When it turns out that Alex was pregnant at the time of her death, the list of suspects grows to include virtually any man in her sphere, from her husband to a local fisherman, to the oily scion of the wealthy Lorentz family to a local, hopelessly alcoholic, painter who may or may not have been Alexandra’s lover. Other suspects include the jealous mates of all these men, the victim’s bitter younger sister, even Alex’s parents. Ultimately, Erica and Patrik, working together and apart, sort out the story behind two present-day deaths and a long-ago disappearance, all the while managing to fall in love and sort out Erica’s family troubles!
Some mystery purists decry the modern propensity for “padding” a plot with overdrawn characterizations and way too much focus on a detective’s personal life, all at the expense of the puzzle. In all fairness, these opinions are balanced by those who sniff at the classic puzzle mystery as reducing the novel to a mental exercise. You can certainly find mysteries that support either point of view, but I would suggest that both arguments are inherently unfair. First of all, characterization is not in absentia in the classic mystery novel, particularly when in the hands of a female author. The reason the Crime Queens have exceeded the popularity of their male brethren is that writers like Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and even Dorothy L. Sayers did not dispense with characterization or the emotional aftermath of a crime the way Freeman Wills Crofts, Philip MacDonald, or even the early Ellery Queen novels did.
Christie has all too often been denounced for shallow characterization, a criticism that is grossly unfair and inaccurate. One need only throw out names like Jane Marple, Dora Bunner, Amyas Crale, Henrietta Savernake, and Michael Rogers to show how well Christie could bring a character – even a long-dead one – to life. She could draw an insightful sketch of a character in only a few sentences and then allow their actions to provide us with deeper knowledge. But equally important was that Christie knew when to let description stand aside to propel a plot forward.
Lackberg has often praised for her psychological insight, but her propensity for providing everybody with a physical description, a back story, and an inner life often stops the story cold. For example, there are two murders in The Ice Princess, and both bodies are discovered by characters who then disappear forever from the narrative. Yet both of these men are given a history that beckons the reader to become invested in what will happen to them. It isn’t until late in the novel, during a meeting at the police station, that we are introduced to the three cops who work with Patrik. The most significant personal aspect of this meeting is the tension between Patrick and his odious and incompetent boss, Mellberg. Yet Lackberg pauses the action here to go around the table and describe the personal histories and relationships of each officer.
In his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” classic author S.S. Van Dine put romance in its place in Rule #3:
“There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.”
Love certainly figures in many of Christie’s novels, although even the purest romance was either secondary to, or part and parcel of, the main mystery plot, unlike, say, Patricia Wentworth, who centered her mysteries around a young romantic couple whose innocence was sacrosanct. Clearly, I prefer Christie’s use of romance to Wentworth’s, but I have no problem with a love affair co-existing with a puzzle plot, as long as it is well-presented. Most of the best of these delve the detective’s private life, which is why we see it so little in Christie. Miss Marple, the spinster, and Poirot, the confirmed bachelor, saw no need to distract themselves from the case at hand with a little tete a tete! Even Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were blessedly light on the lovey-dovey stuff as they courted, wed, and enjoyed a long and happy marriage that spanned their author’s entire career.
The romance between Erica and Patrik in The Ice Princess, to my mind, takes up way too much time and isn’t particularly original. In fact, Lackberg often goes for writing “shorthand” by summoning up a song lyric or an image or character from pop culture, such as Bridget Jones, to inform the reader of how things are proceeding between our heroes. While the tone of the mystery is dark, the scenes between the two new lovers feel like a mild romantic comedy. Having just watched one of the episodes from Sweden’s adaptations of Lackberg’s novels, I can venture the opinion that this tonal shift works much better on TV than it does in the book. It’s a shift that we never have to worry about with Christie!
Most important of all is the adept way a fair play mystery writer like Christie handles clues by layering the telltale evidence so that it sits out in the open and yet eludes our grasp. She lays her traps by combining actions, physical evidence, and seeminly innocuous conversation. Think of the wax flowers on the malachite table in After the Funeral, the Judgment of Paris in Lord Edgware Dies, or the variations on spelling in A Murder Is Announced. Christie is so sure of herself that she can announce the importance of a clue at the beginning – say, the fact that a psychopathic killer has a physical deformity – then strew her suspect list with people who each has his or her own variation of this trait, and finally drop the most crucial information right before our eyes into casual cocktail conversation, confident that we will not pay close attention. The crucial point here is that Christie hides nothing from us; she tells us what we need to know before her detective cries out, “Nom d’un nom d’un nom! But yes, it is so simple after all . . . “ She even gives us characters like Captain Hastings, who either receive information and have no clue as to its significance, or who drop a casual remark that, minutes later, makes Poirot’s eyes glow green and causes him to exclaim, “Mon cher Hastings, you have solved the crime!”
Lackberg doesn’t even try to play fair, and what is so infuriating is that she utilizes some of the same narrative cues that Christie does without giving any substance to them. Erica and Patrik each have individual moments where they sense that something about a scene they’ve visited is “missing” or “wrong.” But unlike Christie, who would make sure that the important information is delivered to the reader to allow us to make that same observation, Lackberg provides none of this. The most outrageous example of this happens to Erica, who more than once sneaks into Alex’s home after the murder to snoop around. On a second visit, Erica becomes sure that “something is missing.” A “fair play” mystery supplies the reader with the set-up of both visits so that the most perceptive among us might figure out what this missing object is. By the time Erica smacks her head, figures out what was missing, and uses that knowledge to deduce the identity of Alex’s lover, we certainly should have the information we need to do so. Yet we are never supplied with this info, and when Erica confronts the lover with her “evidence,” we are stuck going along for a ride in which we have been basically blindfolded.
Even Patrik, a police detective, deduces very little and relies instead on fortuitous info dumps that fall into his lap at the precise moment necessary to move the plot forward. He claims to have a sharp instinct about people, derived from his studies in detective school. But this never manifests itself through any deductions; rather, Patrik always has a vague sense whether this or that person can or cannot be trusted. This may represent the real life of a modern policeman, but it most certainly does not qualify as “fair play” detection. It’s one thing for a sleuth to be proven right over an announced “feeling” that somebody is either honest or too good to be true. It’s quite another to lead the readers themselves to make the conclusion that somebody is innocent or guilty – and then spring a trap to show how misguided we were in our reasoning.
I’ve talked about characterization and clueing here. Finally, there is the question of charm: charm of writing style and tone, of things like setting and historical context. Christie has the distinct advantage for any reader interested in bygone days. Once I have read the solution to any of her cases, I still enjoy re-reading Christie, both to marvel at how she structured her mystery, and to enjoy the nostalgia she invokes and the insights into how upper middle class people lived and survived from the end of World War I to the extinction of the traditional British village in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
Lackberg is less interested (at least in this first novel) in presenting a picture of Fallback as an interconnected community than in moving her characters from one building to the next to keep the action going. The charm of the village is lacking here. Moving on to historical context, one thing I’ve learned about the Scandinavian writers to whom I’ve been exposed over the past six weeks is that the plot is almost secondary to the dark vision they hold of their society. Majwall and Wahloo used the procedural to expose corrupt government and espouse their own Marxist philosophy. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy employs the guise of a thriller to continue his work as a leftist investigative journalist. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is just as much a study of anti-immigrant feeling in Denmark as it is an hallucinogenic adventure.
Lackberg seems to me to be the least culture-centered author of the lot. The Ice Princess could just as easily take place in the outskirts of Boston as it could in a Swedish village. The author is less concerned about creating a cultural document as she in in exploring the psychological damage we do to each other, particularly parents to their children. These issues are universal, which may help account for Lackberg’s international success. I wish her all the best, but I would appreciate it if the inappropriate comparisons to Christie would stop. I have read all of Christie, Christie is an idol of mine, and Camilla Lackberg is no Agatha Christie!