DARK CHRYSALIS: Camilla Grebe’s The Ice Beneath Her

A DEAD, UNIDENTIFIED woman is found in the empty Stockholm house of a major clothing retailer’s CEO. Her severed head seems to have been posed deliberately upright on the floor to witness the killer’s escape. Jesper Orre, the executive who owns the house, has also gone missing. With those first few pages, Camilla Grebe’s new thriller, The Ice Beneath Her already has you snared.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of three central characters, each of whom is fully fleshed out, with their own compelling backstory. There’s Peter, the workaday police detective who’s struggling with his own terrors of intimacy and commitment. There’s Hanne, the retired profiler who’s slipping into dementia and finally trying, as she begins to lose her identity, to gain some kind of freedom from her domineering husband. Finally, there’s Emma, a salesgirl in one of Orre’s shops whose secret affair with him has gone inexplicably off the rails. She finds herself bereft and broke now that Orre’s vanished from her life, and all she wants are some answers.

One of the novel’s central motifs is a caterpillar kept in a jar by a youngster. The keeper watches while the larva spins a cocoon, and waits, watching to see what will emerge from the chrysalis. That’s a fair picture of the novel’s suspense as we readers wait to see what metamorphosis is at hand, whether what emerges after each characters’ transformation is benign or monstrous.

Grebe’s work falls clearly into the Stieg Larson, Henning Mankell school of snowy, urban Scandanavian thrillers, and it has the same engagingly bleak tone. This is Grebe’s first solo novel, her three previous novels were co-written with her sister, Asa Träff. At heart it’s a straight-ahead thriller, so if you’re looking for twists ahead, you’ll probably see them coming, but with well-drawn characters and a keen eye for human foibles, this novel goes well beyond the tropes and trappings of genre fiction.

The book is translated by Elizabeth Clark Wessell, one of the editors at Argos Books. She once wrote a New Yorker piece called “Translate this Book!” It was about a list of books in most urgent need of translation into English. We should be glad Grebe’s book made her personal list.