Written by Quentin Bates — It appears the weather is conspiring to keep us reading Nordic crime fiction – or at least crime fiction set in colder climates. Or is it just me who needs rain, snow and grey clouds to curl up with Scandinavian writers? Quentin Bates, however, is an English writer, albeit one with an in-depth knowledge of Iceland, including an Icelandic family. This is his third novel set in that country and featuring irrepressible detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir.
An elderly shipowner is found dead, his hands and legs securely tied to the bedframe in his room in a smart hotel in Reykjavik. A senior bureaucrat is in deep trouble following the disappearance of a laptop containing sensitive government information. Meanwhile, the aptly-named Baddó, a career criminal who has just returned to Iceland after a few years in a foreign prison, is hired to find and neutralise a hooker who seems to be operating a scam involving wealthy men and bondage.
While it doesn’t take Gunna – or the reader – long to find out the connection between the storylines, the author deftly weaves in and out of the various characters and scenes. Who will gain the upper hand in this enthralling chase of unlikeable characters? Sex, lies, blackmail and murder follow, with Gunna and her team always a step behind the various unscrupulous operators in this drama. None of this may be strikingly new, but it is tightly plotted, written in an economical style, yet very apt at conveying local colour.
Quentin Bates has taken note of readers who complained it was hard to follow the many complicated Icelandic names in his previous books, and he has stuck mainly with memorable first names or nicknames in this volume such as: chameleonic Hekla with her specialised line of work; weak and stressed Jóel Ingi, getting deeper and deeper into trouble; and of course the afore-mentioned Baddó, who soon sees the whole mess as an opportunity to strike out on his own and make a fortune.
This is a well-crafted, enjoyable romp of a story, well-anchored in the recent economic realities of Iceland. There is enough complexity in the plot to satisfy even the most demanding readers, but like many Nordic novels, it is far from actual noir. What I particularly like about this series is Gunna herself. An unglamorous single mother approaching her 40s, she is deliciously no-nonsense and feisty, with a wicked sense of humour. Her domestic issues are handled in a gently comic, compassionate way. They never impinge upon the main investigation. Each book in the series is fine as a stand-alone crime novel, although you may find that once you become acquainted with Gunna, Helgi and the rest of the team, you will want to go back and read the other two that have been published thus far.
All in all, this makes for an enticing alternative to native Icelandic writers Yrsa Sigurdardottir or Arnaldur Indridason. It’s a series I certainly intend to continue reading.
Constable & Robinson Crime
CFL Rating: 4 Stars