Ice Moon (2003) by Jan Costin Wagner

Having read a lot of Golden Age mysteries or comic crime novel recently, Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon (2003) was certainly a change of scene for me and it was nice to return to reading translated crime fiction. Ice Moon was translated from Finnish by John Brownjohn.

Ice Moon

The novel begins with a death, though not a murder, as Sanna, police detective Kimmo Joentaa’s wife, dies of a terminal illness and in many ways this story is much more about Joentaa’s progression through his grief than about solving a crime. In some ways this novel is also an inverted crime story as we are present when the murders take place and are able to piece together some clues as to who the killer is. As the story unfolds this information leads to a name and for most of the novel the reader knows who is committing the murders. The first two deaths at first glance to the police look unconnected, one being a suburban housewife and the other a young man in a youth hostel who is part of a touring party. However, Joentaa is convinced that they must be linked. Both deaths are caused by suffocation and there seems to be a real emphasis on the killer not causing his victims much pain.

Characterisation and character psychology is at the forefront of this novel and we get a lot of insight into the characters. The killer for example is very sensitive to colours and they feature a lot in the chapters he is in with the word sun being replaced with ‘red fireball’ for instance. His imagination is crucial to his existence and he often visualises other people’s deaths, which is mirrored in Joentaa who during the novel does a similar thing with those nearest him, especially at the funeral of his wife: ‘no one meant anything now that Sanna was dead.’ Something which interested me with Joentaa’s character is that his wife thought ‘his addiction to harmonious personal relations was almost unbearable,’ yet after her death there are a catalogue of moments where this addiction seems distinctly absent. In fact during his grieving he actually tracks how others react to the news of his wife’s death, which he breaks to people in a blunt and abrasive manner. This in itself is not surprising as during grief it is normal to push people away and Joentaa acknowledges how he ‘dreaded the sympathy of others, dreaded having to bare his emotions, emotions he couldn’t really understand himself.’ But all the same this apparent addiction to getting on with people seems an odd piece of information to throw in if Joentaa is not going to live up to it.

The murders the killer commits send a chill through the police team as the killer often removes items from the scene of the crime and in the second murder, the murderer managed to kill their victim in a room where seven people were sleeping. Added to this, in the novel crimes seem to be perpetuated by madness or through an inability to express oneself. There is also a suggestion that in this madness the killer is placed into or operates within another world. This is most keenly expressed in the chapter where the murderer and his thoughts are focused on. For example in one chapter it says:

‘He had done wrong. But he would eradicate that wrong by repeating it. He would eradicate it by returning to the world known only to himself… where what he had done was not wrong.’

Wagner effectively switches the narrative between Joentaa and the killer. I found it interesting that after the reader knows the name of the killer, the chapters concerning him do not always use his name which I at first thought was to do with conveying a sense of unknowability, which tied into the fact that these chapter are often brief and include short fragmented sentences. However, this is not consistently maintained after the first part of novel and instead I think the inclusion or negation of the killer’s name is partially tied into his split personality and whether or not he is his killer self, where the use of his name disappears or is used in a detached manner.

There are a number of parallels between Joentaa and the killer, who are both struggling with emotional issues. For example, when Joentaa is really suffering the sentences describing his experience become shorter and more fragmented like the killer’s. Additionally, the murderer has an ambiguous relationship with his brother Tommy, as on a night where he plans to commit a murder he simultaneously wants his brother to stay and to leave and he also admits to hating and loving him. This oscillation mirrors Joentaa’s own difficulties with interacting with those close to him such as planning to call his mother and then not doing it, or inviting someone to stay and then not arranging it. In fact his house becomes a location of inertia which affects other characters who move into that space.

There is the potential for redemption with our killer though which I was intrigued by when a budding romance seems possible and this relationship becomes a catalyst for the killer revealing more information about himself. However, with a personality such as the killer has the readers’ narrative expectations may well be upset as his need to redeem himself is demonstrated in a chilling and unpredictable manner. Joentaa’s final discovery of the killer, due to the fact the story is inverted lacks suspense and drama, especially considering Joentaa is fairly sure that the killer will not commit another murder. Moreover, the pace of novel felt quite slow when the police are trying to capture the killer and the ending felt rather deflated and there was a distinct lack of tension, which is not what you expect from a thriller. One reason for this lack of tension and of slower pacing is due to a tangent where a character from one of the victim’s past is flown in and overall I do not think this character and their situation added much to the novel. However, there is something poignantly beautiful in the final ending of the killer and I think it is telling that Wagner prevents the full truth behind the crimes being told to either Joentaa or the reader.

The finding of this killer is less about giving the reader a neat solution but about various characters trying to resolve their emotional issues, though the ending of novel raises doubts as to whether Joentaa in particular succeeds. For the most part the style of the novel is well written and the psychology of the characters is one of the story’s greatest strengths, where even in a moody and angry boss there is more than meets the eye. Moreover, like most Scandinavian crime I have read such as the Martin Beck series, each character to varying degrees has something to struggle with. Additionally this novel like others in its genre utilises the trope of the emotionally struggling policeman using his job as a coping mechanism. It was different for me to be reading a novel where the murders have no conventional motivation. One query I do have was that in the story there seems to be a disproportionate amount of unfaithful husbands and I was wondering whether this is a trope specific to Scandinavian crime fiction or whether the novel was reflecting a Scandinavian cultural attitude or theme. There were a number of things which intrigued and interested me about this novel, but the pacing and the general lack of tension and suspense lowered my final rating of the story.

Rating: 3.75/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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5 Responses to Ice Moon (2003) by Jan Costin Wagner

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I share your misgivings for this one. If you ever decide to give this author another go, I highly recommend Silence, book 2 in the series, which I managed to read first (due to seeing the film version)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t aware this novel was part of a series, as I was given it as a gift and also I didn’t know Wagner’s work had been adapted for film, so thanks for the info. Do you read a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction?

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      • Guy Savage says:

        I read some. I wouldn’t say a lot. The only reason I read Silence was because the film was so fantastic. It’s really very chilling and the book has some differences from the film, so you’re ok on that score. I think there are 4 or five in the series in translation.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. John says:

    I have read lots of Nordic noir (Icelandic, Danish, Swedish and Finnish) and I don’t find that infidelity is any more prominent in their crime fiction that it is in English language crime fiction. And I would never call infidelity a cultural norm of *any* country. To me it seems like a global problem of humanity.

    Also, I saw THE SILENCE several years ago and found it deeply disturbing. I must’ve forgotten that it was based on a European bestseller since after viewing the trailer to refresh my mind I see the movie is blatantly marketed as being based on a book. IMO, the focus on child rape and murder in THE SILENCE may be too much for some people to handle. At the midpoint something is revealed that truly sickened me and struck me as utterly amoral. I pretty much divorced myself from getting involved in the movie from then on. Just a warning before you go hunting for the book.

    If you want to try a writer from this part of the world who is more in line with traditional detective fiction (but no less bleak in mood) I highly recommend Arnaldur Indridason’s novels from Iceland. SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, VOICES and HYPOTHERMIA are three of his best books. There is some fair play plotting, real understandable motives and nicely done surprise endings. He also has a skill in provoking emotional responses from the reader. I find many of the scenes rendered in his books to be heartbreaking – especially the reveals of the killer’s motives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well perhaps cultural norm was a bad way of describing what I was trying to say, but in comparison to my own reading of English crime fiction (which does include a number of modern authors) I have found in Scandi crime that sexual mores are more relaxed and that couple infidelity seems to crop up much more. For example in an English novel there may be one couple within a book which has this issue and this is often linked to the central crime, but in Ice Moon most couples seem to have this difficulty, which seemed a bit imbalanced and improbable. Hence my curiosity as to why this was so, as the writer must have put it in for a reason. From your description of The Silence I think I will give it a miss as I don’t particularly want to be sickened and horrified in that way, so thanks for the heads up on that. The name Indridason does ring a bell and when I next venture into Scandi crime I will give them a go.

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