This is not the first novel we’ve reviewed in the series featuring indomitable, good-natured Icelandic detective Gunnhildur Gisladottir, and I hope that it won’t be the last one. The author is a dab hand at weaving political and social commentary about post-bankruptcy Iceland into a fast-paced plot with plenty of memorable characters, thus creating a very enjoyable crime fiction concoction.
I was a little nonplussed by the opening scenes, which shift rapidly from one viewpoint to the next, in what has become the trendy way of presenting crime thriller set-ups on TV. There are multiple disparate scenes in the early chapters, and it’s left up to you to make the connections as you read. What are the links between three foreign women working as cleaners, a successful burglar called Orri, and a businessman normally resident in Copenhagen who is killed in a summer house in the woods during a tryst with a young Russian girl? After this rather disconcerting (but very effective) beginning, things become clearer and the story alternates between the police perspective and the possible criminals’ point of view. My initial guesses proved wrong, as it emerges that the businessman’s wife was not the jealous kind, and that it is far more likely that his shady property dealings with his old college friends led to his death. Then Orri witnesses something he shouldn’t during one of his break-ins and reluctantly becomes involved in something much bigger than a conventional smash and grab.
Gunna Gisladottir and her colleagues warn the dead man’s business partners – dentist Johann and his glamorous wife Sunna Maria – that they too might be in danger. Yet, despite providing them with a bodyguard, Johann walks out of his hotel and vanishes. As Gisladottir patiently sifts through the evidence, she uncovers a tangled web of corruption, links to Latvian crime rings and worse. All the while, we wonder just how many innocent girlfriends and wives have to suffer the consequences of the bad choices and impulsive actions of their menfolk.
The author lived for a long time in Iceland and he makes the country really come to life with just a few brushstrokes, without having to over-describe or explain. One of the detectives quips that Icelandic people enjoy just two degress of separation, rather than the usual six. They are an insular people but are having to come to terms with a shaky globalised economy, as well as a globalised workforce and, potentially, new types of criminal activity.
Quentin Bates does not write moody Nordic noir. For that, you’ll need to turn to Arnaldur Indridasson. Instead, he consistently delivers reliable police procedurals with interesting characters, careful plotting and a nice dose of humour. He achieves a great balance between serious subject matter and lightness of tone, between suspense and character development. Above all, he has a winning heroine in Gisladottir. She’s an engaging, warm-hearted and mature woman, with a complicated family life. Imagine a far more sociable Vera with grown children.
You can read our review of Chilled to the Bone here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars