Written by Quentin Bates — How does Quentin Bates manage to do it all? Translate Ragnar Jonasson’s Icelandic crime series, organise the Iceland Noir festival, and produce on average one murder mystery a year. What’s more, all this productivity seems to be making his writing better and better: self-assured, witty, generating a ‘Nordic comic noir’ feel that is all his own.
This is the fifth novel in the Officer Gunnhildur Gisladottir series – aka ‘Gunna’ for those who need something more pronounceable. Bates has also written two novellas in the same setting, which were a bit of a departure from the standard police procedural formula. In his last novella, Summerchill, he indicated that he found villains almost more fun to write about than his detectives, and he has taken that further in this latest novel.
We are back to wintertime in Iceland. Late November, but Christmas shopping is already starting in the streets of Reykjavik. Two small-time crooks, Össur and Magni, have just robbed Ally the Cornershop, a notorious Icelandic drug dealer, but their getaway car doesn’t show up. Anxious to escape with their stash as soon as possible, they carjack a large vehicle just outside the shopping centre and kidnap the woman driving and her daughter. Things go from bad to worse when the car runs out of fuel. They hide out in an isolated hotel which is boarded up for the winter, but tensions rise when they disagree on what to do next, try to survive on minimal provisions, and seek to avoid the curious neighbours.
Back in Reykjavik, Gunna and her team are investigating not only the disappearance of the mother and daughter, but also the death of a thief in a house fire. As the police slowly manage to unravel the connections between the two events, the chapters alternate between the capital and the remote hotel. The hotel scenes are often full of gritty humour as we get to know the mismatched kidnappers and their victims better. Both the set-up and Bates’ development of the characters are excellent. Össur is a typical crook, unpredictable, selfish and prone to violence. Unable to find a credible ‘Plan B’, he locks himself up in a suite to smoke and binge-watch TV, but he also has an annoying habit of issuing forth every now and then to wave his gun around and insult people.
But Magni turns out to be a fairly reasonable person, a sailor down on his luck and bankrupt, who only agreed to help out an acquaintance in a moment of drunken stupor. It’s Magni who does the cooking, smooths down ruffled feathers, hides the car and finds a way to get hold of petrol. But Magni is attracted to the young Tinna Lind, who seems to relish the adventure of being kidnapped. Soon the two of them are conspiring how to get hold of Össur’s money and run away. Meanwhile, Tinna Lind’s mother Erna is both arrogant and fearful – an explosive combination. And, of course, Ally the Cornershop’s gang are after the two thieves as well.
I won’t give away any more of the cat-and-mouse game played out at all levels between police, criminal gang and kidnappers. Suffice it to say that it’s an entertaining, suspenseful and very satisfying story, with influences taken from American road trip movies but also the snowed-in claustrophobia and no-nonsense straight talk we’ve come to associate with Icelandic crime, including the recently aired series Trapped. Gunna’s family life is present, but not overwhelmingly so. If you’re new to the series, don’t worry, you’ll be fine without knowing all the back story, but if you want to understand why I greet the investigative team composed of Gunna, Eirikur and Helgi as old and dear friends, you’ll want to go back and read earlier books beginning with Frozen Out.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars