Translated by Quentin Bates — Amazingly, there are 13 novels to date in the Stella Blómkvist series and yet no one knows the true identity of the author. The high-profile Reykjavik lawyer first appeared in 1997, began a hiatus in 2006, then re-emerged in 2012. Her last case to date came out in 2022 and she has also featured in an Icelandic TV show running since 2017. Yet, despite Elena Ferrante style speculation, the face behind the author’s pseudonym, which is also the name of the main character in the series, remains a mystery. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in Iceland.
Murder at the Residence was the return novel originally published in 2012 in Iceland, and is the first to appear in translation. The celebrity lawyer, we soon discover, has a plethora of clients and a cupboard full of axes to grind. There’s never a dull moment around Stella.
It all starts on New Year’s Eve in 2009. This is just after the country’s financiers played fast and loose, crashing the economy and leaving ordinary citizens to pick up the tab. A woman approaches Stella at a party. Dagnila’s friend Ilana has gone missing after being picked up in a car for an exclusive event. The two women are sex workers, originally from Latvia. Stella soon finds out their pimp couldn’t care less about the disappearances, but he will learn she isn’t easily fobbed off.
For some reason, people go to Stella for help. As well as Dagnila, there is Hákon, a criminal on his deathbed. His last wish is for Stella to find the daughter he last saw in 1972, when she was a baby. His confession to killing two men is uttered in his dying breath and Stella feels obligated.
Then there’s the drugs mule working for some Lithuanians trying to take over the Icelandic trade and the girl who claims to have been run over deliberately.
All are in play before we hear of the death of billionaire financier Benedict Bjogúlfsson. In fact it’s Stella who finds the body. Now we have a case the police care about, not that they are any more competent with this than they are with the other case mentioned.
To add spice to an already boiling pot of mystery, Stella fears one of her friends, a woman she has loved, may be involved with Ilana’s disappearance. The diverse strands of the story begin to come together and Stella is determined to get to the truth. That means she must expose secrets that go to the heart of government, revealing blackmail, sex trafficking, corruption and murder.
A note from the publisher tells us Stella is back, this time angrier, more mature, more rounded. We can’t vouch for that given the earlier novels are not available in English, but Stella is a brilliant creation, and she is quite angry.
Stella doesn’t suffer fools, and with razor-sharp observations can skewer an adversary while needling the whole rotten system too. She is the champion for the downtrodden, a spokesperson for the abused and battered masses failed during the financial crisis by the buffoons in charge. As an advocate for her clients, she is worst nightmare of the police, prosecutors, enemies of truth and hypocrites.
The personal plights of a handful of people create a deftly plotted mystery that also speaks to the state of the nation. At times this is poignant and hard hitting, the cool way the story of the sex workers is told only adds weight to their plight; it’s truly empathetic and insightful. It’s also an indictment of misogyny and sexism that savages the beast. The evocation of the political and cultural background is spot on and this is crime fiction elevated to the level of social commentary. Stella Blómkvist’s wicked sense of humour is irresistible.
Quentin Bates is a fine crime novelist in his own right but he’s rendered the darkness, the vibrant energy and the black humour of the novel into English as a superb translator too. This book has a drive and passion that is formidable. We’re on board with the mystery, the humanity and the sheer gusto of the narrative. Some may not like the political content, which is not for the lover of a straightforward murder mystery. But even if you don’t agree with the political slant of the author, you will enjoy the story at least.
Murder at the Residence announces Stella Blómkvist loudly and more instalments are most welcome, please. We would much prefer a story like this to the glossy, transparent mysteries that often sell more but lack depth of storytelling and feeling. And if we ever wind up on the wrong side of the law, we want Stella at our side.
Recommended for fans of Steve Cavanagh’s Eddie Flynn novels such as The Devil’s Advocate.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars