Just ten days before Christmas, and the beautiful cathedral city of St Albans is cloaked in snow. But all is neither calm nor quiet in this artfully written, slow-burning and sinuous thriller.
mystery | thriller | crime
It is the week before Christmas and the cathedral city of St Albans is blanketed by snow. But beneath the festive lights, darkness is stirring. The frozen body of a young girl is discovered by the ice-covered lake.
The police scramble for clues. A local woman, Jenny, has had visions of what happened the night of the murder. But Jenny is an exhausted new mother, whose midnight wanderings pull her ever closer to the lake. Can Jenny be trusted? What does she really know?
Then another girl goes missing, and the community unravels. Neighbour turns against neighbour, and Jenny has no idea who to believe. As Christmas Eve approaches, Jenny discovers a secret about her past – and why she could be key to everything.
Author – Rachael Blok | Published by Head of Zeus in November 2018 | 302 Pages (kindle)
Under The Ice is the author’s debut novel, and the first book in the DCI Jansen series … but I seem to be doing things in a topsy turvy way so I’ve found myself reading this book after book two. It was the brilliance of the second book – The Scorched Earth – that had me hooked, and so I couldn’t resist going back to the beginning to acquaint myself a little better with the enigmatic Maarten Jansen.
One thing I learned from the previous book is that Rachael Blok writes in a style that I hugely enjoy. She has a distinctive rhythm and tone that creates a certain atmospheric moodiness; it seems to settle itself over both the book and the reader … a bit like the way snow muffles sounds and makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world.
Chapter one is most certainly designed to set the reader on edge … christmas; in-laws; car journey; bad weather; fractious baby. Jenny and her husband, Will, have left their lovely cosy cottage in St Albans to battle their way round the M25 for an early Christmas lunch with Will’s parents. It’s clear that Jenny would rather be sticking pins in her eyes, and her discontent is magnified by baby Finn’s restlessness in the back seat. I felt agitated and flurried, which I suspect was the author’s intention. This was a clever first scene as it’s a situation we’ve all survived at some time in our lives, immediately securing reader engagement through a dreaded familiarity.
On the morning of their departure, the body of a fourteen year old girl is found, drowned in the ice-glazed lake at the bottom of St Albans park. Her death isn’t accidental, sparking a furious manhunt across the city. DCI Jansen and his team are assigned this troubling case, and it’s not long before a second girl goes missing. This time the disappearance is close to home, as the nine year old girl is the best friend of Jansen’s own daughter, Nic. Jansen finds himself torn between chasing down the perpetrator, and submitting to the demands of his wife to spend more time at home reassuring Nic.
Jenny and Will live in one the cottages on the edge of the park, just a few minutes’ walk from the lake, and so – at first – Jenny’s reaction to the news of the first girl’s drowning could be explained away by proximity and new-mum emotions. But before long she’s insinuating herself into the investigation, throwing up one too many questions for Jansen’s team to ignore. Not a great believer in coincidences, Jansen’s suspicions are raised even further when Jenny makes a very public attempt to rescue the second girl.
The narrative perspective flips between Jenny and DCI Jansen, with each ‘voice’ working well to provide context and clarity to the unfolding story. Their mutual suspicion is a constant undercurrent which artfully maintains the sense of unease that was established so well in chapter one. However, it occasionally felt a little bit overdone on Jenny’s part, tipping her character away from ‘sleep-deprived young mum’ and more towards ‘obstructive attention seeker’. There was an element of this to the story that is intentional though, so please don’t read too much into this little grumble of mine.
I relish the author’s eye for observational details … nuances of body language; fathoms of meaning displayed in almost imperceptible glances; thoughts left unspoken; incongruous gaudy Christmas decorations amid a murder investigation. And I really enjoy her talent for creating such rich scenes from something simplistic. For example, in chapter five when Jenny meets her friend Sam in the Hollyhocks café…
Hollyhocks is rammed. The morning is crisp outside, but all the wet clothes and boots have turned the warm air in the café moist. It’s like a humid greenhouse. Jenny has Finn strapped to chest and she wilts once through the door.
‘Got you a latte,’ mouths Sam, or shouts, from her table at the far end. Her words are gathered up and dispersed long before they reach Jenny. The noise is like a cocktail party in full swing.
Making her way through the throng of people towards Sam takes time. People are dressed in suits with briefcases and laptops scattered on tables; unwilling table sharing is a necessity. There are about six cafés in the centre of town and on a Monday morning there is always space to meet. Not today. With the trains down due to the weather, frantic workers are out escaping houses full to the brim with children on school holidays and from schools shut with the snow, bursting with all their toys and desire to run.
And the press: beanie hats pulled down, winter coats, feather-down gilets, collecting coffees to clutch as they stand outside waiting for news.
Climbing over a briefcase, Jenny flinches as its owner shouts into his phone. The slam of metal on the counter is loud as the barista bangs the foaming milk jugs, making coffee for the snaking queue, and the front door knocks behind her intermittently, opening and closing with busyness.
Whilst the characters aren’t always entirely likeable, they’re all familiar and recognisable. DCI Jansen’s persona develops well through clever use of Jenny’s evolving impression of him, whilst nice injections of his own family life breathe animation into his word-bound form. Jenny is a marmite character though, and I struggled to warm to her. I felt sincere sympathy for the loss of her mother, but I disliked her for her reaction to DCI Jansen. I worried at Will’s volitional denial of her growing anxiety, and yet I distrusted the root cause of her frequent sleepwalking. And I struggled to rationalise her confusion for what it is, interpreting it instead as secrecy and disruption.
Once again I revelled in the choice of location for the book, walking the familiar cobbled streets of St Albans, the bustling market, the cosy old pubs … the magnificent cathedral in particular like an all-seeing eye and the perfect backdrop for this chilling, suspense-filled drama.
Under The Ice is a great story with enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. Savvy misdirection, and a constantly evolving investigation meant the unveiling of the baddie came as a complete surprise to me, and the author neatly brought the varied threads of the story together in a fast-paced, nail-biting conclusion. Initially I was very clear in my mind that, like The Scorched Earth this was also shaping up to be a 5-star read, but there were two aspects of the story that niggled at me: i) the suggestion of ghosts, and ii) the dripping water repetition. The story is compelling, the characters engaging, and the writing style is great … the ghosty bits just undid its credibility a little.
Read the second book in this series – The Scorched Earth – for a fabulously atmospheric change in temperature.
Rachael grew up in Durham and now lives in Hertfordshire. Her crime series is set in the cathedral city of St Albans. Here, Maarten Jansen struggles against his plain-speaking Dutch upbringing when faced with the seemingly polite world of the picturesque city.
Under the Ice is the first novel in the series. The third book – Into the Fire – is due to be published in April 2021.