Icelandic Intrigue… Frozen Out (Quentin Bates) and Last Rituals (Yrsa Sigurdardottir)

I am back in Iceland after a break in Finland! 

After a break of a few weeks, I have picked up the blog to bring you updates on two books I’ve read both set in Iceland and both featuring female investigators.

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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The international best-seller, quoted on the cover as ‘Dark, deep and icy as an Icelandic fjord… a rich and rewarding debut.‘ Mark Billingham.

I have had some time to myself recently as my readership will know, so decided to buy the first three of Yrsa’s ‘Thora’ stories. She is a lawyer by trade, divorced and dealing with kids and work. She has a much-reduced lifestyle as a result.

She gets pulled into this investigation when a German research student, Harald, is found horrifically murdered on the university campus.

Another boy has been arrested and faces an aggravated murder charge and as far as the police are concerned he did it; he can’t prove he wasn’t there, no alibi and as he has no recollection of events due to his drug and alcohol abuse neither, however, can the police prove he is complicit and are relying on his confession which he won’t give them. Harald’s family also believe the boy isn’t guilty and despatch their business ‘security’ adviser Matthew to engage Thora’s help in navigating the legal system, translating and flirting!

Thora and Matthew stumble around unearthing missing relics, documents, and rituals. It appears that Harald had a fascination with witchcraft and black magic and his research diverted him from his main thesis much to the disappointment of one of his tutors, who unfortunately had Harald’s dead body literally fall on him.

Harald’s student colleagues are wrapped up in this somewhere, but it isn’t completely clear; how can you rely on what they say when they were drunk, drugged and loved-up around the time of the death in a very busy bar.

It’s a great novel, well plotted which I have read most recently and enjoyed the interactions between Matthew and Thora as an almost amusing sideline to the novel – a little like in my opinion to the humorous dialogue between Martin and Saga in ‘The Bridge’. It’s a great ‘whodunit’ in my opinion with the traditional amateur sleuth.

I have two of the follow-on books ready to read, but there are more….

My Soul to Take

Ashes to Dust

I shall be diverting back to England for one of my next reads, but before that, I will recollect my other Icelandic adventure.

Frozen Out by Quentin Blake

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I hasten to add I bought his one at Nordicana 2015 in June when I met first Quentin – aka Greybeard (@graskeggur) on the ‘Iceland’ stand when I was buying my copy of ‘Snowblind’ by Ragnar Jonasson which he translated.

I had never read anything Icelandic until then. I felt obliged to buy ‘Frozen Out’ as the author was there and I could get it signed! I do love a signed book! I didn’t regret it, apart from making a friend, I also have a new female fictional heroine to add to my increasing list and a new author to follow.

This is the first of the Gunnhildur (Gunnar) mysteries and an enjoyable and intriguing read from my acquaintance from the Nordic genre with whom I’ve had the pleasure of breaking bread, (it was a naan actually.) 

Gunnar, as we get to know her as is the local police sergeant in fictional Hvalvik, a fishing port of Quentin’s imagination. It’s not too far to drive from Reykjavik. The book is set to the backdrop of the financial meltdown in the Nordics.

She is woken one morning by a telephone call about a body found in the harbour water. The corpse belongs to an employee of a PR firm and apparently drowned miles from where he was last seen. Gunnar is suspicious of this and sets about digging.

There are a number of other layers to this – an anonymous blogger that writes scandalous and possibly libelous reports that contain clues and references to the crimes, there is a shady unidentified man taking taxi rides from Gunnar’s cousin. This man has links to the PR company as a ‘Mr. Fixit’ and in tandem with this there is corruption in government which also has familial links to the PR company in and around the development of industry in the area.

The waters are muddied because we find out that a recent contact of the drowned man was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident! No one was caught. But he was very involved in a campaign group against the industrial project.

I won’t spoil the story plot too much, but we do find a lot about our central character which sets us up for the follow-on novels about Gunnar both inside and outside of her work. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel as Gunnar is a really interesting character facing a number of professional and personal challenges. Please find time in your schedule to read her (his) stories – I hope I’ve teased you enough. Here are two of the follow-on books linked below:-

Cold Comfort

Chilled to the Bone

Quentin, also know for his translation work, is English and lives not too far away from me on the south coast. His Icelandic language skills come from his time working there I believe many years ago, so he is familiar with the culture and no doubt the climate.

I’m also keen to state that he has also translated Nightblind by Ragnar Jonasson which is due out in December on Orenda Books another one from Iceland I am very much looking forward to.

I’ve been somewhat remiss since the summer so I should now endeavour to pick up and read a relatively local crime novel.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward 

I am eager to boast about this as I also have a personally signed hard-copy of this one from when I met Sarah at Nordicana 2015 and it’s been creeping up the list. It’s also just been published in paperback.

I will eventually put some words together on this one too!

Happy reading – there is no excuse now that it’s cold and wet and miserable in England!

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Defenceless in Finland

I am still in fictional Finland and having finished the book, filled with the bitter-sweet emotions one gets – the sense of achievement conflicting with the loss of being with those people who have filled my imagination this last few days.

On this occasion I was holding back tears as I had been wrapped-up in the lives of the key players in Kati’s second Anna novel:-

  • Anna Fekete,
  • Esko and
  • Sari.

We get even closer to Anna and Esko in this the sequel to The Hummingbird which I reviewed only recently. The crime threads aren’t connected so you can read them standalone I hasten to add.

Without giving anything away this is full of personal emotion for Anna and leads us on to the next one without leaving loose crime threads. At some points I did wonder if Anna would herself unravel if we pulled too hard.

On September 8, 2015 I was fortunate to be able to attend a book event at Blackwell’s in Portsmouth. Both Gunnar Staalesen and Kati Hiekkapleto were the star turns on a short tour on their way to Bloody Scotland.

The local event had been arranged by Karen Sullivan (Orenda Books) and the MC was Quentin Bates (known on social media as ‘GreyBeard;’ a local writer in his own right and also translator of note).  Both authors answered questions about their work and also gave us the honour of reading small passages from their latest.

Kati read from The Defenceless  where two girls go out into the forest to smoke purloined cigarettes and discover a crime scene.

Afterwards a small group of us went for food in a local restaurant where I was able to enjoy the company of Kati and her lovely teenage daughter. She is a fan of fantasy in the written word citing ‘Lord of the Rings’ as one of her favourite books.

I was also privileged to have both Kati’s books dedicated and also Gunnar’s We Shall Inherit the Wind.

Anyway, I had started to read The Defenceless  in earnest only that day having read a few chapters before going back to read The Hummingbird to get the back-story on our key players e.g. Anna, Esko and rest of the violent crimes unit.

I had only literally finished Anna 1 the evening before and written the review you will find on previously on this blog.

The Book of the Blog

The Defenceless 

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We start this story from the perspective of a character called Sammy, who is with us throughout the story, and his escape from his homeland from persecution and death on his journey to Finland.

As we rejoin Anna and her colleagues, the plot forks off into a number of threads; the investigation of a road traffic accident where a Hungarian girl has apparently run over and killed an old man – who is miles from home; two girls that find a blood-stained crime scene have decided to report it to the police so we now have three strands and two crimes at the beginning of a complex and twisting plot.

Anna, now a senior constable, and Sari are working on these threads. Anna’s brother isn’t helping but she manages to clear the way for him in his fight against booze and he ceases to be as much of a distraction for her. Although the Hungarian girl begins to irritate both Anna and the reader – well she did me – cropping up at the wrong moment on occasions.

Then a neighbour of the apparent road accident victim disappears; a drug dealer is found dead with serious injuries in his flat in the same building. The links between these new investigations, Sammy our refugee and the conflict between The Hells Angels and The Black Cobras gangs builds this into a taut and complex plot.

This gives Esko, working alone something to focus on as well as dealing with his boozing and smoking and their effects on his fitness and general health. But as they say every dog has his day – Esko gets some kudos in this novel after all he is a long-serving and good ‘copper’ even though he is a stereotypical racist.

Written from the perspective of a number of the characters; Sammy, Esko and of course Anna the pace of this novel is really good. The swap between their angles keeps the pace moving nicely as a small clue will be dropped and then you are inspired to read-on to find out what happens next.  Anna’s life is as usual the main thread running through this and last, with her family issues coming to a head again in this one.

In addition to the crimes and Anna’s life, we are given a microscope on the plight of an individual refugee. How they are prepared to live in desperate circumstances as opposed to being captured and killed in their own country for religious reasons as in this case or because their country was at war and they wanted to escape the horrors. It also looks at how intelligent, law abiding people are sometimes prepared to cross the line when it comes to helping others.

I love this book as I did the previous instalment. It is better I would say but different in that it isn’t a police procedural although there is crime scene investigation, the unit meetings with their boss, the autopsy scenes and the detectives at their work but in this and the other book so far it is also about the people, the social condition and their lives. Kati brings into this the seasonal changes as Anna’s exercise regime changes from jogging to skiing. Even a glimpse into the female condition is something I understand now was threaded in for a good reason.

Last but not least it is topical; it makes an important statement about what is happening in the world as I write – tens of thousands of misplaced human beings escaping from war and terror and religious fanaticism. Presenting an economic and political challenge for the leaders of both our countries and those of the wider EU community.

Whodunit?

I couldn’t possibly even start to explain the outcome of this book in a few words and anyway as you’ll now know if you read me that I don’t do SPOILERS but as I always say there are I hope enough TEASERS to inspire you to get this one and read it for yourself.  We are definitely left with a reason to want to come back to Anna, I can’t wait for Anna 3.

Credits

Nothing ever happens….

I am on my literary travels again but this time in Iceland; still, I believe considered Nordic.

I’m writing this somewhat isolated on my continuum of not going anywhere as I am advised to rest and not to drive due to my recent head injury.  I suppose therefore I feel mildly like Ari Thor does when he accepts his first police job in an isolated and close-kit community; there the similarities end as here right now as I write the sun is shining.

Doing a job in the police is not easy in any circumstances and I sympathise a little with Ari Thor as I was once a special constable in coastal Hampshire. Where I was based was literally a walk in the park compared to Siglufjördor with it’s ice, wind, mountains, perpetual nighttime and blizzards to the point of there being no way out. 

I like Ari. I had a long-distance relationship 10 years ago which didn’t work out. I had also moved for a new job which enabled me to start a new life which I am now happily enjoying but new surroundings, new people, new job and a different pace of life – these are a challenge. 

The Book of the Blog

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We first meet Ari Thor in Reykjavik when he finishes Police college and gets the opportunity to start his first job in the former Icelandic hub of herring fishing. He leaves his girlfriend behind on bad terms to take up the position where ‘nothing happens’ according to his new boss. He plans to go home at Christmas but events turn against him in this respect and in parallel with that he starts to have feelings for a local girl, with links to the cast of characters, who could be enmeshed in the investigation.

Ari finds himself trying to fit into the tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. Then something happens! A famous local writer is found dead after rehearsals for the local amateur dramatic society’s latest production. Which one of the group is guilty? He does feel trapped when the roads are blocked and the onset of the winters’ 24 hour nighttime closes in on him.

To add insult to injury in the town where they are now all stranded due to the weather another violent crime has been committed – a woman is found stabbed and bleeding.

I read this book some time ago with enthusiasm  in fact during a hot British summer so a stark contrast to the book’s setting.

The plot is built cleverly as there are only a few people who could have perpetrated the crimes and it all comes to a not obvious conclusion in this well written and engaging novel. I think it does make it more sinister as you never really know if he is safe walking around in the deep snow and perpetual dark. Who can he trust?

Whodunit?

As I always say you’ll have to read it yourself! I can only finish by dangling the carrot for the next instalment NightBlind which is out in late this year/early 2016. I can’t wait!

Credits

  • Nordicana 2015 where I bought the book
  • Quentin Bates the translator a writer in his own right
  • Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books
  • Ragnar Jónasson last but certainly not least for a brilliant book that had me frozen to the spot at times.
  • Goldsboro Books from whom I got a double-signed copy

A man called Wolf…

I have travelled very swiftly from Sweden to fictional Norway with my next read. If you are following me, I haven’t actually moved anywhere far as I am still at home with my feet-up, and you will know my back-story.

I won’t labour the point other than to say – I am typing again with both hands! 

The Book of the Blog

So I have now read We Shall Inherit the Wind by Gunnar StaalesenWe Shall Inherit the Wind BF AW.indd

The Plot 

Varg is a PI in the Chandler style. The story is written entirely from his perspective as he follows-up on the apparent disappearance of his girlfriend’s (Karin) friend’s husband, Mons. The book actually starts in intensive care where his girlfriend is in a coma, we are then hooked into the what happened and what will be the outcome.

The plot then rewinds to the case. The plot sees Varg travel to and from a remote, picturesque, bleak, rugged, wild, run-down and fictional coastal region of Norway in search of the missing man. Varg’s motive is to dig into where the storyline is primarily set near the site of a disputed potential wind-farm. It is while he is there that the plot explodes in dramatic circumstances.

In the course of his digging, Varg meets Mon’s two grown-up children from his first-wife. These now adult children are on opposing sides of the dispute.

From there he starts to unwind a ‘cold-case’ involving the man’s first wife’s disappearance – apparently by drowning many years ago. He gets entangled, as the plot develops, with the business interests that want (or do they?) the wind-farm to be built, the eco-terrorists, local religious fanatics, curtain twitching local gossip-mongers, local ex-police and current Bergen police. Varg is known to the Bergen police by reputation as at one point as they finish talking one of them says “catch you later Varg” which I found amusing in the darkness of this very good Nordic-noir novel.

I enjoyed how the tensions between on one-hand the unearthed family conflicts, the past and present are entwined and the ecological and layered economical conflicts; I am intrigued to read more about Varg and probably need to get some more books from Staalesen. I think my fiancee may hit the roof when I next get back from a book-shop as the pile will yet again grow quicker than I can reduce it.

I found the style different from my other recent reads but when I look back on the other authors I’ve read Mankell and Nesbo most of their work is written from the main character’s perspective so not a difficult transition.

The story does achieve closure on all fronts; there are clues to the culprits if you look for them – whodunnit? – I won’t say other than to highly recommend the book. Please read it and then you’ll find out.

Credits

My literary flight from Malmo to Bergen comes courtesy of Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books. My thanks for the opportunity to discover a writer of great pedigree of who, prior to this, I had not heard of.

Gunnar’s fame in his native Norway is legendary – as you will see from the link there are twelve films about the ‘Wolf’ in the stories Varg Veum.

It was my great pleasure and honour to meet Gunnar in Portsmouth at Blackwell‘s on September 8 with Orenda Books on a whistle-stop tour before he and Kati Hiekkapelto wend their way to Bloody Scotland via a UK mini-tour. Thanks to all involved for a great evening!

I am now reading The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto and will be writing about that in due course.