The third installment of this searing Australian series finds DS Jill Jackson working undercover, using the name Krystal Peters, in the slums of Sydney. She’s identifying plenty of low-life drug dealers, to the pleasure of her bosses, but is finding it a bit of a strain to maintain her facade. When she was a child, she was kidnapped and abused. Although she has superficially recovered from her ordeal by conquering her excessively ritualised life and achieving a degree of closure (described in Vodka Doesn’t Freeze), she’s still suffering, not least in her difficult relationship with her sister Cassie, a glamorous model and, unknown to her family, drug addict.
Jill’s story is one theme of this book. The other follows Seren (short for Serendipity), a young mother who has been wrongly imprisoned for a crime she did not commit – carrying large quantities of “ice” – and who has been abandoned by the man who was actually responsible, a smarmy lawyer who when he is not dealing drugs himself is getting other dealers acquitted and becoming very rich in the process of both activities. Seren reaches the end of her sentence (after some brutal descriptions of life in a women’s “correctional facility”) and, in order to be reunited with her 10-year-old son, acquiesces to a dull life in a cheap flat and a menial yet horrific job slaughtering chickens at a meat-processing plant. Seren, of course, is secretly plotting revenge on the man who got her into this trouble.
Black Ice has a lot going for it. It has an exciting, gritty plot and an attractively capable list of women characters. I am not quite sure, therefore, why I was not more involved in the story and the dilemmas these women face. Partly, I think the book is too sensationalistic without providing enough depth to the characters, giving the whole a bit of a soap-opera feel. People are not who they seem after being described positively for some time, but it isn’t explained why. Details are glossed-over, for example some pages are spent on describing just how broke Seren is on her release from prison, then in one sentence it is said that she has possessions “in storage” – with no indication of how she pays for this. Everything just seems to be that bit too exaggerated, and too much of the plot depends on accidents and mistakes – for example one character drops a camera being used to secretly film a drug deal, and another is recruited as an informer yet given a mobile phone to use which has crucial information on it leading the villains directly to ruin an investigation. Jill herself is a sympathetic character, but she’s like a moonstruck, wimpy teenager every time she meets a half-way handsome man (two colleagues and a drug dealer), which does not fit with other sections of the novel in which she is portrayed as a dedicated, focused professional.
Black Ice is certainly an exciting page-turner, and raises tough questions about the value of punishment and rehabilitation as well as the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. The relationship between Jill and Cassie is perhaps the strongest element in my estimation. But the harrowing themes of the book are presented rather in the manner popularised by Martina Cole: Seren’s compulsive purchasing of $1,000 designer shoes and her spending every cent of her rent money on high fashion does not gel, for me, with her stated principles and adoration of her son, especially as the pages describing the shoes and the sexy clothes she buys are more detailed and involved than those describing the boy and his life. The physical descriptions of the women (particularly Seren and Cassie) could come from a glossy, airhead magazine. Something about this book’s odd combination of romanticised fiction with the shocking details of drugs and violence does not really ring true for me, although I do not doubt the sincerity of its intentions.