Minette Walters's The Ice House

One of today’s most gifted writers of psychological mysteries is Minette Walters. Peter Guttridge claims that Walters has established herself as Britain’s leading writer of “thought-provoking and chilling psychological thrillers.” She is the only crime writer to have won three major awards for her first three books. As her Canadian publishers have indicated, “She’s had a comet-like ascent and is making a huge impact. . . Usually you build slowly in the crime field, but her first book made everyone sit up” (Wordsworth 1994). Walters’s books have been translated into 35 languages and adapted for movies by the BBC. Many consider her the successor to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell.

The Ice House won the prestigious John Creasy Award for best first crime novel. It begins with the discovery of a badly decomposed body in an old ice-house on an English country estate. The present owner’s husband went missing a decade ago; his body was never recovered. The police immediately suspect the owner of the mansion (Phoebe Maybury) and the two friends who live with her. Neighbouring villagers believe that Phoebe murdered her husband and that the three women are dangerous witches and lesbians. A second murder is then attempted.

The Ice House is a novel that will haunt you; it is Gothic in its intensity and themes. As Dismore points out, Walters has “an imagination that’s as savage as it cruel,” and a favourite theme of hers is “what happens when the social order breaks down and the lunatics get the run of the asylum.” The three women who inhabit Streech Grange live at the mercy of such lunatics. Marilyn Stasio identifies “the streak of cruelty that weak and helpless people bring out in others” as a characteristic theme in Walters’s work. Violence and bloodshed are graphically described but not gratuitously so. By making the savagery explicit, Walters gives her victims a voice and awakens the reader’s sense of injustice (DuBose 2000, 404).

The Times calls Walters the “unflinching chronicler of humankind’s dark side.” What makes her books so powerful is their intermingling of the everyday and the horrific; the crimes that she depicts hit disturbingly close to home. Walters plumbs the dark recesses of not just the criminal psyche but also the ordinary mind. In an interview with Good Housekeeping, she states that her intention is “to make the reader worried, alarmed, afraid and fearful.”

Walters expands the boundaries of the crime novel. In a New York Times’s review of The Ice House, Stasio writes, “Ms. Walters makes an art of uncertainty by twisting familiar conventions of the traditional British mystery (the tramp in the woods, the prowler in the dark, the secret in the safe) into a stylish, nontraditional mystery in which ambiguity abounds.” And the enclosed village setting inverts the pastoral vision inherent in the cozy novel.

The ice house on the country estate is both home of a murder and symbol of the Streech House residents’ psychological condition. Although the novel exposes shocking injustice, it is not devoid of hope. “I may write dark fantasies,” claims Walters, “but they are never entirely bleak.”

DuBose, Martha Hailey. “Minette Walters: Dark Shadows.” In Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000, 400-405.

Walters, Minette. The Ice House. London: Pan Books, 1992.

Wordsworth, Araminta. “Speaking Freely with Minette Walters.” The Financial Post. September 17, 1994.