Icelandic crime is big at the moment, what with Trapped reaching its tense conclusion on BBC 4 the Saturday before last. But I have been a fan of Icelandic crime for quite a while – ever since I read Quentin Bates’s first novel, Frozen Out, published around five years ago. I’ve read everything he’s written since then, and I’ve interviewed him on the blog, so I was delighted to be sent a review copy of his latest, Thin Ice.
For my money Officer Gunnhildur is one of the most appealing detectives currently on the scene. Gunna is an appealingly down-to-earth figure, middle-aged, not exactly chic, working hard to do a good job as a police officer, while managing a rather complicated family life. In Thin Ice, a couple of crooks rip-off a drug dealer and are dismayed to find that their getaway driver has disappeared. They highjack a car containing a wealthy woman and her daughter and end up snowed in at an off-season holiday resort. It soon becomes clear that the villains have made a serious error of judgement and that one of their hostages has more than one trick up her sleeve.
Meanwhile Gunna and her colleagues are investigating the disappearance of the women and the death of a thief in a house fire, unaware that they are related. The different threads of the story are woven skilfully together. It’s a good pacy read, well constructed, with some very unpleasant characters that you really hope will get their comeuppance – and there’s a nice sting in the tale. Quentin Bates writes about Iceland, the food (sheep’s head, anyone?), the weather, and the social mores with an unshowy confidence that comes from ten years living there. Well-written, satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable. I’m looking forward to the next one.
A few post ago I wrote about reducing my TBR pile by culling those novels that I decided not to read. Well, here are a couple that made the cut. I read both on my e-reader, where unread books were also accumulating: fatally easy to buy them and just as easy to forget you’ve got them. I’m glad I didn’t forget these.
The Chessman is Dolores Gordon-Smith’s new Jack Haldean novel, one of a series set in the 1920s. She has quite a following and deservedly so. In the first chapter, we are introduced to Sir Matthew Vardon, such a deliciously unpleasant character that I was delighted when he kicked the bucket in chapter two, and not surprised that there are rumours that he was helped on his way. It is just the first of several deaths and soon Jack Haldean is brought onto the case. The period detail is deftly handled and the plot kept me guessing. Every time I thought I had worked it, another twist showed me that I had got it wrong. A rattling good read.
Snowblind is the first novel by Icelandic writer, Ragnar Jonasson. He has translated sixteen of Agatha Christie’s novels, and the set-up here is one that Christie herself might have employed. It is a classic closed community plot. Ari Thor is a young policeman who takes up his first job in Siglufjorour, a fishing village in Northern Iceland. It’s the middle of winter, it’s dark all the time, and snow has blocked the road tunnel that is the only way in. When young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and close to death, and a famous local writer is found dead in the local theatre, the tiny police force are on their own. Great stuff! Everyone, it seems, has a secret and I have to say, I did guess one of them. No matter: it was an engrossing read and a very promising debut. Snowblind is ably translated by Quentin Bates, no mean crime writer himself.
At least for a while. Maybe I’ll take June off. Go cold turkey. Only thirty days in June, so it might not be too bad. Or maybe wait until August when I’ll be in France for some of the time, so (mostly) out of the reach of temptation. Or should I perhaps just STOP RIGHT NOW. But something must be done, because my study looks like a second-hand bookshop, there are books all over the house, and if I’m not careful I’m going to end up like those people who have so much stuff that they have to tunnel through it to get from room to room. And then there are all the unread books on my e-reader. It is so fatally easy to download with just one click – and often so cheap. I have reluctantly concluded that it is all getting out of hand.
What has brought this on is my trip to Crimefest at the week-end. I decided to limit myself to two new books – not least because I had to carry them home on the train. One was the eagerly awaited The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (soon to be reviewed here) and Jorn Lier Horst’s newly translated The Caveman, both signed by their authors. But it didn’t stop there. I came home with a whole bag of books, because I correctly guessed that Len Tyler’s Crooked Herring would win the Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel. The prize was the shortlist of six. I already had Len’s book, so I gave that to a friend. But it still means that I came home with seven new books. No, make that eight, because I kept one that came free in the goody bag.
And in spite of all that, have I still bought another book today? Why, yes, I have. I met a writing chum, Quentin Bates, at Crimefest and that reminded me to download his new novella, Summerchill.
The rate at which I am acquiring books is far, far outstripping the rate at which I read them – and I am a byword among my friends for the number of books I get through. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. So maybe Quentin’s should be the last for a bit. Just a temporary measure, you understand. But I think I’d be the better for it – and so would my credit card statements.
That’s a sore point these days. There used to be a couple of very decent bookshops near where I live in England, but online shopping killed them both off. Now I have to travel a few miles to get to the nearest Blackwells, run by the excellent @booksellerjo. So the bookshop I always head for is the one run by Bragi Kristjónsson on Hverfisgata in Reykjavík. It’s called Bókin (the Book) but referred to by everyone as Bókabúð Braga (Bragi’s Bookshop). It’s a second-hand shop and a chaotic wonderland of the weird, the wonderful and the mundane all rolled into one, plus the old chap himself behind the counter taking snuff and telling stories, not that he’s there as often as he used to be. Then there are the bookstalls in the Kolaport flea market that are always good for a browse for something obscure in English or Icelandic that’s been out of print for decades.
our hero doesn’t call for back-up, but just goes straight in to tackle the bad guy. This happened in a novel I read in the summer (I won’t name names). There was no good reason why she (yes, I am afraid it was a woman) should not have waited, but she didn’t and one of her men got shot and she asks herself, ‘Why did I do this, putting my deputy’s life in danger?’ Yes, why did you, I found myself asking, even I know why. The author feels they have to crank up the tension and put their heroine in jeopardy, but it irritates the hell out of me when a female professional behaves so, well, unprofessionally. That’s the point at which I stop believing in the story. It definitely annoys me more when it’s a woman behaving in this way. I felt the same another crime novel that I read on holiday, except that this time it was a middle-aged female lawyer: I found it hard to believe that someone so disorganised and even at times downright silly could ever have become a partner in a law firm. I know it was supposed to be make her seem more human, but would a man be depicted that way (I should add that the writer was a woman)? A relief then to turn to Quentin Bates’s new novel, COLD COMFORT, and Sergeant Gunnhildur, who may well make mistakes, but is never downright foolish and doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she’s packed the right clothes. This was a good solid read and I enjoyed the Icelandic setting. I recommend it.
I’m hoping to get round to blogging more frequently in a few weeks when the renewal period for CWA subscriptions is over. I haven’t been blogging, but of course I have been reading.
I was gripped by CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin, a worthy winner of the CWA Gold Dagger. It’s sent in rural Mississippi, has a terrific sense of place and is beautifully written. A great opening sentence too: ‘The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.’ Larry Ott has lived a life of extraordinary isolation and loneliness for over twenty years since he was suspected as a teenager of murdering a local girl, who disappeared after a date with him. Nothing was ever proved and now a second young woman is missing . . .
Last year at Crimefest I chatted to new author Quentin Bates and bought his debut novel, FROZEN OUT. I got round to reading it a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in Iceland and features female police sargeant, Gunnhildur, an appealingly down-to-earth figure. It’s a pacy read, well constructed, with some nasty characters that you really hope will get their comeupance. I was reading with bated breath towards the end.
One last recommendation: in film this time. LE TROU, from 1960, Jacques Becker’s last film is terrific: it’s the story of a prison break, based on a true story, and it grips from beginning to end. Just great.