Book Review : Anthony Neil Smith - Castle Danger : Woman on Ice (2017)
People have been reading Scandinavian mystery novel for little over a decade, thanks to Stieg Larsson's immense Millenium saga. Authors such as Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg, Aka Edwardsson and Gunnar Staalesen greatly benefited from its popularity. My point is: people enjoy mysteries, but they seem to enjoy them better in cold, desolate landscapes for some reason and it was a question of time before it would infiltrate American media. If anyone could nail the eerie, frozen atmospheres of Scandinavian mysteries and transpose it in America, it was perennial favorite of mine and resident of balls-cold Minnesota Anthony Neil Smith. And the first novel of his new series Castle Danger : Woman on Ice delivers in all sorts of ways I didn't expect.
Castle Danger : Woman on Ice is the story of Manny Jahnke, a Minnesota cop going through a major transition in his life. He recently separated from his girlfriend Whitney and developed a nasty internet porn habit. Manny's life is turned upside down the day he finds the body of an unnamed woman on a local lake. The victim is revealed to be trans by Manny's partner's Gerard before the ice breaks and swallows them both, which has a profound effect on him. Haunted by grief and conflicting feelings about his sexual identity, Manny begins to investigate the murder. He wants to get justice for the woman who lived the live he didn't have the courage to choose. This investigation will be one big coming out party for Manny Janhke.
This novel takes a little while to warm up *. By the 20% mark, I thought I was reading some bullshit simile of a mainstream mystery where one chapter was narrated by the protagonist and the other from the killer's point of view. You know the formula, I'm sure. But I was wrong! So, so wrong. The fucked up Iraq veteran caught in an abusive relationship is one of the good guys! Now, that got my attention. Anthony Neil Smith goaded me into thinking I was reading something derivative and formulaic and flipped the script on me. And it was not the last time he would do it in Castle Danger : Woman on Ice and definitely the least crazy of all the switcheroos he would pull. This is standout storytelling, guys. A good story will go from point A to point B, but a great story will have forks in the road and go into unexpected directions **.
I wasn't going to make this easy for them. I wasn't going to shoot myself, and I wasn't going to drop the case. Deep down, I might have been wishing I'd been born with one, but I was no pussy.
I'm sure you're wondering: how much of a gimmick the trans detective is? Valid question. I've wondered this myself as I was reading Castle Danger : Woman on Ice. I have little insight on what trans people actually have to go through, but Manny Jahnke's transition didn't feel stapled on. Anthony Neil Smith doesn't shy away from exploring his protagonist's personal crisis in painful and humiliating details. It's a little confusing at first, because Manny drowns his urges in internet porn but the truth becomes gradually clearer to him once he gets to dance with another man in a bar in a low-key beautiful scene. And while Manny faces rejection and public humiliation, you never get the feeling that Anthony Neil Smith is laughing at him. There is something life-affirming to Manny's decision of becoming true to him/herself. Her interior battle fuels her courage to fight the exterior battle that comes with this complicated case, which gives Castle Danger : Woman on Ice a distinct identity, which most mysteries don't have.
So yeah, Castle Danger : Woman on Ice might introduce itself as an American spin off Scandinavian mysteries, but it's a lot more than that. Manny Jahnke has the potential to become one of the great twenty-first century detectives alongside Richard Dean Buckner and perhaps the first satisfying trans character literature has to offer that is not entirely defined by her transition. I believe that is an important step in overcoming the stigma associated with transgender people. I hope that by book three of the series, we even forget Manny ever was a man ***. Anthony Neil Smith did it again. The man rarely writes a bad book, but Castle Danger : Woman on Ice is one of the best things he's written in years. And it's only the beginning. Mystery readers rejoice! There's a great new detective out there.
* Pun intended.
** My canonical example of killer storytelling is Cold in July, by Joe Lansdale. Starts at point A and finishes somewhere in the left field.
*** I'm not telling you her new name, because it would be a spoiler.