Book review: The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson

31 07 2017

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson is an Icelandic crime fiction writer and public roads administrator. He has written six novels to date, four of which have been translated into English, and he has twice been the Icelandic nominee for the Scandinavia-wide Glass Key Award for crime fiction.


(As indicated by the above image, I listened to this one as an audiobook. I’m not sure the story was ideally suited to the audiobook format—each chapter is structured in two parts, with the nature of the second, shorter part not properly becoming clear until late in the book; and there are a number of places where the text features 39-character-long strings of individual letters, more-or-less meaningless in audio but of reasonable relevance to the story—but the audiobook’s gimmick of using a male narrator for the first part of each chapter and a female narrator for the second part worked well enough, even if it was quite confusing for the first couple of chapters.)

The Flatey Enigma (Flateyjargáta, 2003, translated by Brian Fitzgibbon) starts with the discovery in spring 1960, by a family of seal-hunters from the small West Icelandic island of Flatey (pronounced Flah-tay), of the badly-decomposed body of a man on the smaller uninhabited island of Ketilsey. Kjartan, an inexperienced assistant to the District Magistrate, is initially sent to Flatey to investigate the death, but by the time the body is identified as that of a Danish professor who had been visiting Flatey the previous year, it has become apparent that none of the islanders is able to explain how and why the professor made his way to Ketilsey and met his death. Suspicion grows that the death is related to the academic’s researches into the (genuine) medieval Book of Flatey, for which the vellum original is held in Copenhagen and a modern copy is stored in the island’s small library. The Flatey copy of the text also contains the only known copy of the (fictitious) Flatey Enigma, a forty-question puzzle which relates to the content of the Book and which carries a curse applicable to anyone who attempts to transcribe it or to remove it from the library, and it appears the professor had indeed attempted this.

The book is slow to unfold and rather gruesomely authentic, not so much for the descriptions of contemporary murder (which are detailed enough) but for the Book of Flatey extracts summarised in several of the latter portions of chapters: if you were ever wondering how the Norse acquired such a bloodthirsty reputation, the tales from the Book of Flatey should provide an answer, with beheadings, eviscerations and sundry mutilations galore … and then there’s the ritualistic slaying method described as the ‘Blood Eagle’. The islanders’ cuisine, too, also sounds rather grim, revolving around boiled seal meat, fermented shark, and various forms of cooked seabird (puffin appears to feature heavily on this score). Behind all of this, the story presented is sufficiently intriguing to retain interest, though it is sometimes difficult to tell the various characters apart: while they are given distinct personalities, they are not always as sharply delineated as one might wish.

The resolution of the several mysteries within the book is satisfying, but there’s a distinct sense in which the crime plays second fiddle to the gritty detail of the story’s setting.


Book review: The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

20 05 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is an Icelandic crime fiction writer best known for his novels featuring the detective Erlendur. I’ve previously reviewed one of those, Strange Shores, here.


The Shadow District (Skuggasund, 2013, translated by Victoria Cribb) is subtitled ‘A Reykjavík Wartime Mystery’. It’s not an Erlendur novel: here, Arnaldur has introduced a new detective, Konrád, who has retired from active police work but apparently still feels compelled to pitch in from time to time. The novel staggers between two timelines: in the present day, Konrád is helping to investigate the suspicious death of Stephán, a reclusive nonagenarian, in his Reykjavík apartment, while seventy years earlier, during the wartime occupation of Iceland by the Allies, the crime under investigation is that of a young woman whose body is spotted by an Icelandic woman Ingiborg and her American GI boyfriend Frank. Hoping to solve the young woman’s murder in 1944 are Flóvent, a detective in Reykjavík’s then-fledgling CID, and Thorson, a Canadian of Icelandic ancestry on secondment to the US military police. There are, of course, connections between the cases …

I found myself wishing, in places, that the text was somewhat more visually descriptive: the author does not always take enough time, in my opinion, to place the reader in the setting. But against this, the depiction of human action and response is very clear, and the inner voices of the several principal characters are all eloquently recorded. For the most part, the book does a good job, too, of the crucial task of clarifying ‘who knew what when’, which is unavoidably fiddly given the long lapse between the two timelines and the loss of several protagonists, and much evidence, in the interim.

I’m loath to leap to unwarranted conclusions (well, okay, not that loath), but I cannot help but think that the only other novel by Arnaldur that I’ve read, Strange Shores, was in some senses a ‘dry run’ at this one: though the investigators are different, there’s the same concern of a modern-day detective for information regarding a long-buried wartime crime to which the only witnesses remaining alive are in nursing homes or otherwise ‘on borrowed time’. On eyeballing the synopses for his earlier Erlendur novels, it appears that this predilection for wartime cold cases is not completely all-consuming, but its recurrence (and, it would seem, its continuance in the next Konrád instalment, not yet available in English) indicates that the wartime years are something of a passion for the author. The far-distant setting of the young woman’s murder does give the story an eerie, elegiac sense; but Arnaldur’s prose, clean, gentle, and cold, would confer this quality regardless.

Book review: Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

17 04 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, lecturer, and former TV reporter who has performed the translation of much of the Agatha Christie canon into Icelandic, whose ‘Dark Iceland’ crime novels, set in the small northern Icelandic township of Siglufjörður and featuring the rookie policeman Ari Thór Arason, a Reykjavík native newly posted to the insular town’s police force, have been gaining international attention and critical acclaim over the past couple of years.


Snowblind (Snjóblinda, 2010, translated by Quentin Bates) is Ragnar’s debut novel, and opens with the recruitment of Ari Thór, a trainee policeman, by Tómas, the senior officer in Siglufjörður, a town now past its heyday as a fishing port. Ari Thór, keen to get an offer of employment after several setbacks, travels north to the town, against the wishes of his girlfriend Kristín, who stays behind to complete her own studies. Ari Thór is assured by Tómas that the criminal element in Siglufjörður is almost nonexistent, with the daily police duties much more involved with maintaining public order and safety than with the investigation of felonies. For a couple of months, this—and an apparently town-wide obsession with knowing everybody else’s business—does indeed seem to be Siglufjörður’s defining characteristic. But when the town’s most famous citizen, elderly novelist and Dramatic Society chairman Hrólfur Kristjánsson, suffers a fatal fall down a flight of stairs at a rehearsal for the Society’s latest play, followed the next week by a vicious knife attack on Linda, the wife of the play’s leading man Karl, it begins to appear to Ari Thór that the town’s inhabitants are hiding a number of secrets.

I’m not yet sure how central is the sense of geographic isolation as a feature of Icelandic crime fiction, but certainly Ragnar’s Siglufjörður seems very distant from anywhere else—it’s cut off for several days, at one point, by an avalanche which has blocked the only road out, something that Tómas (dubiously) reassures Ari Thór happens every winter—in a sense that mirrors the powerfully bleak emptiness of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores, and that seems to be absent from most continental Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read (Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal is a recent exception). Though the landscape definitely has the status of a character in its own right, the (human) characters are all clearly drawn and leave the reader progressively more deeply puzzled about the crimes that Ari Thór is investigating. There’s an impressive sense of life continuing behind and beyond the pages of the novel: every character (and there are enough of them, almost all with unfamiliar names like Ugla, Leifur, Pálmi, Úlfur, and Hlynur, that I felt the lack of an explicit dramatis personae) has a detailed and often tragic backstory which is gradually teased out. The mystery is well-buried and satisfying, and the ending is sufficiently bittersweet as to motivate the reader to want to know what happens next …

If I have a gripe, it’s that the paperback edition I read (which has excellent design values) suffers from several typographic errors, one of which is potentially serious enough to throw an alert reader out of the story. (Chapters are headed with the appropriate date, which is useful enough, except that two consecutive chapters both identified as occurring on Sunday 11th January 2009 detail events which could not both have occurred on that day.) But other than this, Snowblind is a powerful, contained, and highly impressive debut.

Book review: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrímur Helgason

29 03 2017

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic novelist, artist, and translator who writes in Icelandic and English. Two of his novels have been made into movies, and his artwork has been exhibited in Paris, Boston, and New York as well as in his native Reykjavík.


The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (2008, written in English and subsequently translated by Hallgrímur into Icelandic) starts with ‘Toxic’ (Tomislav Bokšić)—a seasoned Croatian ex-soldier who for many years has been making a living ending other people’s across the US—on the run. Toxic’s latest hit (number 67) has been a success, but he’s been let down by his intel: the target was an operative of the FBI, and the Feds are hot on his trail. Looking to fly out of New York, he’s forced to adopt another alias, which he effects by strangling a second-string televangelist, Father David Friendly, in a restroom stall. Friendly has—had—a ticket to Reykjavík, and so Toxic’s impromptu bolthole turns out to be an Icelandic one. As long as he can pull off his impersonation of a born-again preacher, he’ll be just fine …

Hitman’s Guide is a bit of a misnomer, since housecleaning features only tangentially within the story. And it isn’t really a crime novel in the standard sense, though various felonies are certainly committed during the course of the book; and one always suspects Toxic’s A-Croatian-Yankee-in-King-Olaf’s-Court shtick is ultimately going to derail his efforts towards keeping the lowest possible profile beneath the rather threadbare guise of the deceased Father Friendly. For the most part, it’s a black-comedy rite-of-passage which focusses on the peculiarities of Icelandic culture—the small-town feel of the nation’s capital, the inexplicable shortage of weaponry, the unprepossessing climate—as viewed by an outsider. Hallgrímur has a lot of fun with Icelandic names, which are presented as Toxic (‘Friendly’) hears them (‘Sickreader’, ‘Gunholder’, ‘Torture’, ‘Guard the Beer’ …). The book aims, in its portrayal of Iceland, at a blend of affection and irreverence, and it generally succeeds. I wasn’t always convinced by the comparative ease of Toxic’s redemption, and there is a bit of a slump around the seventh-inning stretch mark, where the story does meander for a couple of chapters, but Toxic’s pottymouthed world-weary streetwisdom retains a certain charm throughout; and the tale starts well, it ends appropriately, and there’s a good deal of acerbic situational humour within.

Book review(s): two Icelandic murder mysteries

11 07 2016

More Scandinavian crime fiction, this time from a couple of well-established Icelandic writers. Deaths at sea feature in both books: two boats, no survivors. But how did it happen?


Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a civil engineer, has written almost a dozen crime novels to date, featuring the Reykjavík lawyer Þóra (Thóra) Guðmundsdóttir as principal protagonist and investigator. In The Silence of the Sea (Brakið, 2011, translated by Victoria Cribb), Thóra is hired by Margeir and Sigridur to investigate the deaths of their bank-employee son Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin daughters Arna and Bylgja, who were four of the seven people on board the repossessed luxury yacht Lady K when it set sail from Lisbon with an all-Icelandic crew. When the boat arrives in Reykjavík’s harbour with nobody on board, it’s obvious that something untoward has happened; but is it some kind of elaborate scam, or has something more sinister occurred? Margeir and Sigridur hope to use the younger couple’s generous life-insurance policies so as to provide for their only surviving granddaughter, toddler Sigga Dögg, who was left in their care while her parents and sisters went on their portuguese holiday. But with no bodies, no witnesses, and no missing lifeboats, Thóra’s task of proving both the deaths and the innocence of Ægir and Lára appears intractable. And when the first body gets washed up, the mystery only deepens …

Yrsa unveils the story in split-screen: alternating chapters give us Thóra’s efforts to make traction with the case, and Ægir’s efforts to keep his family safe on the doomed voyage. This, I have to say, is a nasty trick, and highly effective: we’re forced to empathise with Ægir and his family much more than would have been the case if, in typical crime-fiction fashion, they’d simply turned up dead at the start of the book. (And it’s clear from quite early on that something very sinister has occurred—but who is responsible? Is it the Lady K‘s grizzled captain Thráinn, or one of the other crewmembers Halli or Loftur? Or is there some hint in Ægir’s past that he’s not the honest, upstanding bank employee he appears to be? And how does the fate of the boat’s occupants connect with the disappearance of the former owner’s gold-digger wife Karítas and her personal assistant?)

There are several passages of highly unnerving writing in this one, as Yrsa places the shipboard family in a sequence of fiendishly-wrought (and wrackingly atmospheric) predicaments, to the extent that the Thóra-centred chapters act almost as a welcome respite. And the complicated mesh of partial (and often misdirecting) clues serves more to underscore the family’s looming peril than to allow us to beat Thóra to a solution to the mystery. This is a seriously spooky, frighteningly effective crime novel.


Arnaldur Indriðason is a former journalist whose ‘Detective Erlendur’ series now extends to over a dozen books. In Strange Shores (Furðustrandir, 2010, again translated by Victoria Cribb), the detective is teasing out the ghosts of his boyhood home: the disappearance of his younger brother Bergur, in a snowstorm, when Erlendur was ten; and the analogous vanishing, decades earlier, of a young woman Matthildur, a year before the death of her husband Jakob in a boating tragedy. But there are few people amongst the small settlements of eastern Iceland old enough to still remember the events surrounding Matthildur’s apparent death, and fewer still willing to rake over the past’s old coals with an inquisitive and persistent policeman. Besides, there’s no official police interest in either matter, so what can Erlendur possibly hope to achieve through his darkly nostalgic meddling? But when people—first the farmer Bóas, then Matthildur’s younger sister Hrund, then Jakob’s former friend and workmate Ezra—reveal what they know of the incident, a disturbing story starts to emerge …

This is a moody, often bleak story of which I’m still not sure what to make. Erlendur’s role in the book is a rather unusual one (the policeman as amateur sleuth) and one which I didn’t totally buy: the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to uncover the past’s secrets, more out of a curious compulsion than a genuine thirst for justice, are really quite extraordinary … but then I don’t have a strong sense of Erlendur’s character in other circumstances, such as would have been the case if I’d commenced with book 1 rather than, I think, book 9 in the sequence.

Strange Shores is elegantly written, in clean prose and with an assured, unhurried pace. I enjoyed the reading of it, but I suspect it wasn’t the most suitable Detective Erlendur novel with which to start. Still, it’s an impressively subtle piece of detection, and makes effective use of a deliberately-sparse palette to paint a starkly grim crime.