For most of the past week, I ploughed through a W. Somerset Maugham collection with that signature pleasure one has in reading one short story after another. Maugham’s stories can wear thin after a while, however, owing to their formulaic structure. So I took a break for something completely different: The Ice House is a crime novel, but Minette Walters plays with a lot of crime conventions. It’s not entirely clear if a crime has been committed or who the victim is, let alone who the murderer might be.
I only had a vague conception of what an “ice house” actually is. Being Canadian, the first thing that comes to mind are those hut-like structures one erects atop a frozen lake when ice-fishing. That’s not what this is. It’s actually this, which makes much more sense. Not only are such buildings good for keeping ice cold, but they are also nice places to store bodies. The only thing that surprises me is that this doesn’t happen more often!
Walters creates and sustains interest beyond the initial, intriguing selection of the setting. Firstly, there is the question of whether Phoebe actually killed her husband, David, all those years ago. Secondly, there is the related question about the identity of the discovered body and whether its death was accidental or intentional. Finally, the relationships between Phoebe and her friends and the village around Streech Grange result in a tense atmosphere not at all aided by the dynamic among the women of Streech Grange and the police officers assigned to the case.
For most of the novel, Walters very carefully avoids providing any hard evidence either way regarding whether Phoebe killed David. She dances deftly around the issue, dangling tantalizing scenes before the reader that seem to imply Phoebe’s guilt, then in the next chapter revealing evidence that seems to preclude her involvement at all. As the situation surrounding David’s disappearance becomes clearer, so too does our understanding of Phoebe’s character and whether she had the motive, opportunity, and willingness to kill her husband. Watching this develop proves a very interesting experience.
Similarly, Walters keeps the identity of the body a mystery for as long as possible. It is too recent to be David—unless he disappeared, only to resurface and die in the ice house for some reason. Indeed, I wasn’t that impressed by the resolution to this mystery. It makes a neat sort of sense—the kind of neatness that only really shows up in the twee world of the crime novel, where coincidence is the only thing more common than murder. Regardless, this mystery is even more important because of what it means for the police who are involved. DCI Walsh is in charge of the case, as he was in charge of the first investigation at Streech Grange. His experience ten years ago now colours his expectations of these events, and it soon becomes clear that he is emotionally invested in showing that the body is David’s.
The other half of the “dynamic duo” is Sergeant Andy McLoughlin. At the beginning of the book, Walsh is the reasonable, understanding “good cop” and McLoughlin is the rough, straight-to-the-point “bad cop”. Walsh displays a tolerant attitude towards the apparent lesbian relationship among Phoebe, Diana, and Anne; McLoughlin wastes no opportunity to single it out as strange. Gradually, the roles of these two policemen in the eyes of the reader reverse. McLoughlin seems to mellow (though there remains a staunch misogynistic streak in keeping with his overall character) as his attraction to Anne grows and he becomes more committed to finding the truth. Meanwhile, Walsh seems to become more and more obsessed with proving Phoebe guilty of murder, to the point where he almost crosses the line of tampering with the investigation. These two men start as colleagues but soon stop seeing eye-to-eye as each one’s biases take their focuses on the investigation in different directions.
For such a slim volume, then, The Ice House has a lot going on. There is far more beneath the surface here than might seem at first glance, and that is the true talent that Walters displays. I don’t often read straight-up crime novels (if they have a supernatural or science-fiction element, then I’m there). That’s just a matter of preference on my part, rather than an issue with the genre as a whole. So as a relative outsider to the genre, take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt—but also take it as a recommendation that this is a story even a dilettante can enjoy.
The Ice House was published in 1992. It’s practically pre-Web, pre–mobile phone. We’ve moved on from then; missing persons cases (and murder investigations) have changed. So in this way, the book is a relic of a now-lost time, just like all contemporary crime thrillers through the ages. If it were published today, it would be in a different climate, one influenced by the nascent surveillance society wracked with scandals and the discontent of a generation that cannot go quietly into the good night. For all its differences from the present atmosphere, though, it holds up remarkably well. With tragedy and romance as well as crime, its strength of characters and simple set of interconnected mysteries make The Ice House an enduring novel with more complexity than meets the eye.