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Posts Tagged ‘Iceland’

THE SHADOW DISTRICT by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland during World War II was changing, and the changes weren’t to everyone’s liking.  Before the war the country was a small farming community, remote from the rest of the world, ruled by Denmark.  But in 1944 Iceland became an independent republic while at the same time undergoing major social changes due to the influx of American and British troops who were stationed there before being sent to fight in Europe.

As in other countries where foreign armies were present, this created problems; in Iceland that became known as the Situation.  British and American soldiers were dating Icelandic women who were impressed by the foreigners’ sophistication, politeness, and wealth, a welcome change from the rural and unworldly Icelandic men, at least as they were perceived by the young women.

In wartime Reykjavik, Ingiborg is facing this problem.  Deciding to disregard her father’s stern prohibition about dating an American, she and her lover Frank have sneaked off to the abandoned National Theater, a favorite place for illicit romance.  Scarcely have they arrived when Ingiborg trips over some cardboard, and when she and Frank look down they see the body of a young woman.  Ingiborg wants to call the police, but Frank prevails and they flee the scene.

Fast forward to present day Reykjavik, where the body of an elderly man is found in his apartment after his neighbor calls police to say she hasn’t seen him in several days.  He’s lying peacefully on his bed, fully clothed, but obviously quite dead.  At first, given his advanced age, the police conclude that he died in his sleep, but the autopsy required by law shows that Stéfan Thórdarson was suffocated.

Konrád, a retired Reykjavik detective, has an interest in the case.  He has vague childhood memories about the murder in the Theater; it happened in his neighborhood, the Shadow District.  He seems to recall that his father had some connection to it, but he can’t remember exactly what it was.  He gets permission to search the apartment of the dead man, which is almost completely free of any personal items except for a photo of a handsome young man and three newspaper clippings about the death at the Theater.

The Shadow District goes back and forth in time between 1944 and now.  No one has ever been arrested in the young woman’s murder, even though it bore a resemblance to the disappearance and presumed death of another woman in northern Iceland a few years earlier.  The only seeming connection between the two deaths was the mention of Huldufólk in both cases. 

Huldufólk are elves or hidden people in Icelandic folklore, sometimes amusing and sometimes evil.  Shortly before the disappearance of the northern woman and the death of the woman in Reykjavik, each had spoken about being attacked by these elves.  The belief in these mythic beings runs deep in the country, even today.  And although many people say they don’t really believe in the hidden people, no one wants to totally dismiss them.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of Scandinavia’s most popular writers, winner of the Glass Key, the award for the best Nordic mystery novel, in 2002 and 2003.  The Shadow District is his first in a new series, and it’s a terrific beginning.  As always the author’s characters and plot are believable and engrossing, and the glimpses into Icelandic history are an added plus.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason on many websites.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Iceland has come into its own in the past few years as the setting of excellent detective novels.  Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and Quentin Bates are among the half dozen Icelandic mystery writers who have introduced their detectives over the past decade and a half.  Now Ragnar Jónasson’s novel, Snowblind, has placed him in this respected company.

Ari Thór Arason is in Reykjavik, trying to find a path to a meaningful life.  He’s been a theology student, then a philosophy student, and now he’s finishing up studies at the country’s police academy.  He’s not certain where, or even if, he’ll be offered a job, given that there are more police officers and would-be officers than there are openings in Iceland.  But to his surprise, he receives a call offering him a two-year contract in Siglufjördur, a small town so far north that it’s practically touching the Arctic Circle.

Taken a bit by surprise, Ari Thór immediately accepts, then tells his live-in girlfriend the news.  To say Kristín is upset is to put it mildly, partly because it will mean a separation for the next two years while she continues her medical studies in the capital and partly because she hadn’t known that he had applied for this job.  So Ari Thór leaves for his posting with hurt feelings on both sides, his because Kristín isn’t excited and happy for him, hers because Ari Thór hadn’t thought to consult her before applying for the job or accepting it.

Siglufjördur’s most famous citizen is Hrólfur Kristjánsson, one of the country’s most famous writers.  His novel, North of the Hills, was written during World War II and is still required reading throughout Iceland.  Hrólfur has been renting his basement apartment to a series of young people over the past several years, and he has taken a particular shine to Ugla, a young woman new to town.

Hrólfur suggests that Ugla join the Dramatic Society in town, of which he is chairman.  She is content with her life and her involvement in the Society’s play, in which she has the female lead.  But all that comes to an end just a few days before the production’s opening when the body of Hrólfur Kristjánsson is found at the foot of the auditorium’s stairs.

Snowblind is a wonderful novel.  The sense of place is perfect, allowing the reader to share Ari Thór’s feeling of claustrophobia in this remote, snowbound village, far from the woman he loves.  He also has the feeling of being an outsider, one who will never be connected to the inhabitants of this town as most of them come from families who have lived here for generations.  After all, why would any young, ambitious person come to Siglufjördur anyway?  Well, we know why Ari Thór did, but what brought Ugla there?  And how are his feelings for Kristín holding up, given the distance between them and his proximity to Ugla?

Ragnar Jónasson is an attorney and writer, an Icelander by birth.  Interestingly, he has translated fourteen Agatha Christie books into Icelandic, although he did not translate Snowblind into English.  Snowblind was written in 2010 and is followed by several other novels in the Dark Iceland Series that feature Ari Thór.  These other mysteries are now absolutely on my must-read list.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE by Michael Ridpath: Book Review

Iceland–a country with a lot of differences from the United States. Police do not carry guns, and there are no handguns in the country; citizens are listed in the phone directory under their first names; most sons have the last name of their father with the addition of “son”–Teddy Douglasson; most daughters are given the last name of their mother with the Icelandic addition of “daughter”–Lyla Suzannedottir (Teddy and Lyla being siblings with the same parents); women keep their original last names after marriage.

Although Magnus Jonson (his American name) knows some of these customs, he’s still feeling a bit off-kilter when he returns to the land of his birth after twenty years in the United States. Actually, Magnus Jonson isn’t even his real name.  His real name is Magnus Ragnarsson, since he was the son of Ragnar.  But the American bureaucracy couldn’t cope with this when they realized that his father’s name was Ragnar Jonsson and his mother’s name was Margret Hallgrimsdottir–his name should be one of those.  So, in desperation, Magnus took Jonson as his last name; sometimes, he thought, it’s just not worth the battle.  But upon his return to Iceland, he introduces himself as Magnus Ragnarsson, and the people he meets nod approvingly.

As the novel opens, Magnus is a police detective in Boston who is supposed to testify against three crooked colleagues in his department in a drug-related arrest.  There have been two attempts on his life, generally thought to be related to his upcoming testimony. So his supervisor tells him that, in response to a request from the Reykjavik police department for the loan of an experienced homicide detective, Magnus will be going to Iceland until the trial begins. The fact that Magnus speaks Icelandic is definitely an added bonus.  Against his will, but understanding the necessity for his transfer, Magnus leaves his adopted home and heads north.

Although crime is rare in Iceland and murder even rarer, there was a murder just days before Magnus arrived in Reykjavik.  A university professor was killed at his summer home, and investigation shows that the reason for his death points to his involvement with an ancient Icelandic saga that has been offered for sale.  The saga has been handed down from father to eldest son in a family for generations.   Now, due to the economic downturn that has hit Iceland hard, Ingileif Asgrimsdottir, the daughter of this family, has reluctantly decided to sell the saga; the professor was very interested in buying it.  Her decision brings new deaths and reopens investigations into old ones.

In addition to the saga itself, there is another very important and nearly priceless artifact involved.  The family lore is that there is a gold ring that, like the saga, has been passed down from generation to generation, a ring that has unequaled power.  It is similar to the gold ring in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there is correspondence from the author of those books, J. R. R. Tolkien, to an ancestor of Ingileif’s.   Her father fell to his death searching for the ring, and she wants no part of it.  But it seems as if someone else does.

The plot and characters in this novel are outstanding, and the unusual locale simply adds to the pleasure of reading this book.

Where the Shadows Lie is the first of Michael Ridpath’s Icelandic crime novels.  Although it was published in 2010, I just discovered it this month.  His second in the “Fire and Ice” series was published as 66 Degrees abroad but may be found under the title Far North in the United States.

You can read more about Michael Ridpath at his web page.

JAR CITY by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland in the fall–it’s cold, dark, and rainy. A perfect setting for a “typical Icelandic crime” that turns out to be anything but.

Just a word of explanation at the beginning, taken from “A Note on Icelandic Names” that prefaces Jar City:  “Icelanders always address each other by first names…People are listed by their first names even in the telephone directory.”  So the following names are all first names.

Inspector Erlandur is called to investigate the murder of an elderly man after a neighbor’s young son discovers the body.  The apartment in which the victim is found is on the lower floor in a small apartment building, dark and dank.  It appears that Holberg was killed by a heavy glass ashtray being thrown at his head, not exactly a certain way to kill anyone.  As Erlandur’s assistant, Detective Sigurdur Oli comments, “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?  Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.”

But there are two strange items in the apartment.  The first is the note left on the dead man’s body:  “I Am Him.”  The second is a faded photo hidden in a drawer; it’s a headstone over a little girl’s grave with the name Audur on it and the dates 1964-1968.

When Erlandur returns home after seeing Holberg’s body, he’s surprised by a visit from his daughter.  Eva Lind is a young woman with many problems, most notably drugs.  Erlandur and Eva Lind’s mother have been divorced for many years, and he’s had very little contact with her or her brother.  She comes to her father for money, which he refuses to give her.  Then she throw out her surprise–she’s pregnant.

Simultaneously, another crime is reported at the other end of the Icelandic social order.  A bride has disappeared on her wedding day, actually from the sumptuous wedding itself, leaving only the cryptic note “He’s a monster.  What have I done?”  The bride’s parents and her new husband profess to know no reason why she should have disappeared the way she did.  But for Erlandur, this needs to take a backseat to the murder of the old man.

A little investigation shows that Holberg was not a model citizen, to put it kindly. Many years ago he was accused of raping a young woman he met at a dance.  When the woman went to the police with her accusation, a hostile police officer refused to investigate, saying she had made the whole thing up.

In the background of the crimes is the question of what it means to be a father. Can one be a father if all he did was contribute his sperm during a rape?  Can one be a father if he sexually assaults his daughter?  Can one be a father if he has little or no contact with his children because of a divorce?  Like other Nordic writers, Indridason writes about social issues that arise in his country, issues of violence and domestic problems that are world-wide.

This book was one of the novels I read for the course I took this fall entitled “A Sense of Place:  Murder Mysteries ‘Round the World.” Jar City was written with an incredible sense of place.  The city of Reykjavik and the country of Iceland are brought fully to life.  It’s a place of great homogeneity, but it’s filled with secrets.  It’s not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is so beautifully written that it’s worth reading past the violence to delve into the culture of a country that is unfamiliar to many of us.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason at various web sites.