Cass Neary exists on the edge of society. She received critical acclaim for her book of photography Dead Girls early on in life but after splitting with her muse and lover Quinn O’Boyle, she has been drifting. Frustrated about losing her inspiration and not prepared to produce second-rate work, her photography career has been over for some time. She’s now into early middle age and is a borderline alcoholic. Avoiding contact with others, perhaps as a result of a rape on her 23rd birthday, her closest relationship is probably with her drug dealer.
Nevertheless some kudos remains thanks to Dead Girls and she’s contacted by a wealthy collector, who wants her to travel to Helsinki and authenticate photographs of murder victims. They are the work of Finnish fashion photographer Ilkka Kaltunnen who made his name capturing the violent Nordic Black Metal scene. At the same time Cass receives a letter, postmarked Reykjavik, containing a picture of Quinn in his youth. Cass decides to kill two birds with one stone and pick up some easy money for the job, then search for her ex-flame.
In Helsinki she discovers that the murder victims were posed to represent the folkloric Jolasveinar figures, such as The Peeper and Meat Hook. In Nordic stories, they punish naughty children before Christmas. Kaltunnen refuses to be drawn on how he knew of the victims, but we learn these killings were never reported to the police. Is Kaltunnen the murderer himself, or an accomplice?
Completing her work in Helsinki, Cass flies in to Reykjavik to find Quinn. There she discovers he knew the collector, and was himself involved in the Black Metal scene in a peripheral manner. He makes his living in a city devastated by the banking crisis by selling records, and drugs, and welching on his debts. Suddenly Cass is freaked out by the news that the photographer, his assistant and the collector have been found brutally murdered in Helsinki. She fears for her life, and then Quinn also goes missing. Unable to trust the police she’s alone in a foreign country with a hostile climate.
I liked the fact that Hand is prepared to take risks in her work. There are some unsympathetic sides to her central character, and the topics of Nordic paganism and the Black Metal scene probably don’t feature in too many James Patterson blockbusters! Naturally a degree of exposition is needed for these esoteric topics, and this is woven skilfully into the narrative in a way that never causes the novel’s pace to stumble. What we learn feels absolutely authentic and I never doubted the accuracy of her research.
Hand makes good use of Iceland’s hostile climate to create a sense of foreboding which raises the tension towards the climax. When it arrives, it almost moves the book into horror territory such is its power. We won’t tell you how it ends, but the morally-compromised character becomes infinitely more so. That doesn’t stop me wanting to read more about her. This is the first time I’ve read Elizabeth Hand and I’m thinking of her as the find of the year.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars