Translated by Quentin Bates — Following on from The Fox and Silenced, Harm is the latest in the Dark Iceland series by Sólveig Pálsdottir, in which Reykjavik detectives Gudgier Fransson and Elsa Gudrún investigate murder cases.
As Iceland has a small population and a minuscule rate of serious crime, their skills are often required outside the city itself. That’s certainly the case in Harm, which begins with the death of Ríkhardur, a doctor on a caravan holiday on the Westman Islands, off Iceland’s south coast. He’s there with Diljá, his significantly younger girlfriend, and two other couples who are more towards her age.
Being older and a little bit dull despite his wealth, Ríkhardur is the odd one out among the six. At a meal in the restaurant near the campsite, he suddenly becomes very drunk and has to be taken back to the caravan. The next morning Diljá discovers that he’s not breathing so she jumps in the SUV and makes a run for it.
When Gudgier, Elsa Gudrún and the police forensics team start looking into the case, they find that alongside alcohol Rikhardur has powerful sedatives in his system. When they finally catch Diljá, and interrogate her and her friends, they discover that not only was she having an affair with one of the men but that she was giving Ríkhardur drugs to knock him out so that she could go out and party – without her sugar daddy as a ball and chain.
Clearly, Diljá has done something terrible but the more they look into it, the more their sympathy shifts from the victim to the suspect. Ríkhardur was a perfectionist who often hectored Diljá about little things in daily life, such as how she folded her clothes. Although she’s attractive, healthy and has a good job as a personal trainer, it turns out Diljá is quite vulnerable. She’s been raising a daughter on her own, relying on her mother for help, and has had mental health issues in the past.
Ríkhardur might have been her ticket out of that life, but being with him turned out to be no easy ride.
There are other things that don’t sit well with Gudgier and Elsa Gudrún. For example, the man Diljá was having an affair with was the person who turned her in. In addition, the four friends who went to the Westman Islands with them were all not just into fitness but had unusual alternative lifestyles. This included trips to South America to participate in ceremonies involving psychoactive drugs – the kind that result in diarrhoea, vomiting and hallucination which supposedly lead to spiritual cleansing.
Ríkhardur’s adult children and sister don’t have much to offer other than a dislike for Diljá, but then Gudgier tracks down the man’s ex-wife. Ríkhardur left her after she was rendered disabled in an accident. The hard side of the victim’s personality comes into sharper focus as more information is uncovered, and so do new lines of enquiry.
As its blurb states, Harm is a novel offering a web of intrigue. There are numerous layers of moral complexity here, and several of the characters are elusive and secretive, for a variety of reasons. The author does well to present a very wide and blurry grey line between the black and white aspects of the crime, and there’s certainly a streak of toxic masculinity in Ríkhardur – a victim who was actually a very difficult and nasty person.
The thoughtfulness on the part of the author continues into the personal lives of both her detectives. In Silenced, Elsa Gudrún came to serious harm and the fallout bubbles up in Harm. It affects how she and Gudgier function together as detectives. Gudgier’s personal worries are more minor, though – mainly he’s worried that his daughter’s boyfriend, and father of his grand child, isn’t up to it.
Harm is a good read and a solid police procedural. It will interest readers who’ve enjoyed the first two books in the series but lacks the emotional power of Silenced. Sometimes, moral depth and complexity can make a book interesting. However, what happens here is that the moral angles seem to average out and the book feels slow in parts.
However, the final sections are sharp and dramatic. The excitement gathers force as Gudgier kicks into gear to find out what really happened to Ríkhardur, who did it and why. Sólvieg keeps you guessing right to the end.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars