Author, Book review, Fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Thora Hjörleifsdóttir

‘Magma’ by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (translated by Meg Matich)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 200 pages; 2021. Translated from the Icelandic by Meg Matich.

Thora Hjörleifsdóttir is a poet from Iceland who has turned her hand to writing fiction.

Magma is her debut novel, originally published in Icelandic in 2019 as Kvika and translated into English by Meg Matich two years later. Oprah Daily named it one of the Best Translated Books of 2021, describing it as an “erotic thriller” in which “volcanic desire oozes beneath the thin rust of relationships”. It’s garnered plenty of critical acclaim from a wide variety of reviewers and outlets.

I picked it up by chance at my local independent bookstore (a big shoutout to New Edition in Fremantle where I seem to spend half my wages) because the blurb sounded interesting. I figured it would be a good read for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS, a month-long celebration of work from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

Fast-paced read

It’s a quick read… less than two hours, in fact, helped partly by a compelling storyline and a layout that adopts a lot of white space. Indeed, some chapters are just a single paragraph and every new chapter starts on a righthand page. Before you know it, you’re halfway through the book, totally engrossed and keen to see what will happen next.

And then — BINGO! — you’ve finished.

And, if you are anything like me, you will feel:


creeped out



a bit gobsmacked


icky and


You might also feel a tiny bit hopeful that the narrator has found a path out of her predicament.

Toxic relationship

That predicament comes in the form of a man. Not a very nice man. A man who is manipulative, devious, narcissistic, untrustworthy and unkind.

He’s good-looking — and knows it.

Our narrator, Lilja, a 20-year-old university student, is in love with him.

She is impressed by his ability to quote the French philosopher Derrida, his commitment to vegetarianism — “We’ve banded together in our meat-free lifestyle” — and his DVD collection.

But right from the start, she’s less impressed by the knowledge he has two children (by two different women) with whom he has little contact, and a recent ex-girlfriend he can’t seem to ever let go.

Despite this, she’s on a mission to become more than a sexual partner: she wants to become his girlfriend.

I love him, but I’m not going to tell him, not yet anyway. I don’t believe he loves me back, but we’re getting there. And I don’t care. It’s enough when he touches me, wraps his arms around me, fucks me.

They hang out together, but he never truly commits to her. Even when she moves in with him, he continues his philandering and maintains his privacy to a ridiculous degree.

He lacks any kind of social skills — he rudely reads a novel at the dinner table when invited to meet her parents, for instance — and never introduces her to any of her friends, even when they are in her company, and makes constant snide remarks about how many men she has slept with.

His sexual proclivities, and what he expects Lilja to do in bed with him, are also questionable.

It’s hard to understand what Lilja sees in him, but she’s obsessed and seems prepared to subject herself to all kinds of humiliations in the name of so-called love. The book takes a very dark turn when Lila begins to self-harm.

Living in silence

The author claims she wrote Magma to highlight the kinds of abuse so many women endure in silence. “Shame and isolation thrive in that silence,” she writes in her preface. “If it isn’t broken, this story will continue to repeat itself”.

Her objective is honourable but reading this I couldn’t help but think the story was mildly gratuitous. It’s sexually explicit in places (you have been warned) and makes for uncomfortable reading (which is, perhaps the point).

The saving grace is the beautiful impressionistic prose. It’s stripped right back but remains elegant and eloquent. Every word counts. And that makes for a powerful — and, at times, shocking — impact.

In telling the story of a young woman whose all-consuming love affair with a manipulative man results in her eventual unravelling, Magma is as much about lust as it is about the lengths we are prepared to go to stay in a relationship.

I read this book as part of Annabel’s #NordicFINDS23, a month of celebrating literature from the five Nordic countries. You are welcome to join in however you wish, with books by Nordic authors or a Nordic setting. To find out more, visit AnnaBookBel.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson, Iceland, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘And the Wind Sees All’ by Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery)

Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 176 pages; 2018. Translated from the Icelandic by Bjorg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery.

Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All is a beautiful tale that celebrates a small fishing community in northern Iceland.

Each chapter is devoted to a different resident in the village so it reads more like a short story collection than a novel. But there are common threads and recurring motifs so the stories feel connected. A woman wearing a white dress with blue polka dots, for instance, appears in every chapter as she rides her bicycle down the main street.

That woman is Kata and she’s the young woman who plays the clarinet in the local choir. She’s on her way to the village hall for an ambitious concert of Icelandic choral songs, but we don’t really find out her story until the end.

In the meantime, we meet a varied and interesting collection of characters, many nursing heartbreaks and heartaches, but all just getting on with their lives as best they can.

There’s the poet struggling to write the piece he will perform at the concert; there’s pipe-toting Árni, a blow-in who arrived just two years ago, that the locals are unsure about; there’s Svenni, a taciturn and reserved foreman in the refrigeration plant, who was molested as a child by a politician who visited the family home; and there’s Ólafur, a banker who was caught up in the collapse of the Icelandic financial system in 2008 when the branch he managed lent too much money to the local fish factory.

This is just a small selection of characters from a wide and varied cast. Each one is well drawn, reflective and flawed, their stories fleshed out via flashbacks or memories to build a detailed, engaging and all-too-human portrait. And because we often see each person from multiple viewpoints as the book progresses, we learn more than they, themselves, might be willing to share, including the nicknames they’ve been assigned, some of them secretly.

Each person has a story to tell and the stories accumulate to build up a picture of a village with a rich and complex history.

A village is not just the movement of the surf and a life of work, the clattering of a motorboat, or dogs that lie in the sunshine with their heads on their paws. It’s not only the smell of the sea, oil, guano, life and death, the fish and the funny house names. It’s also a chronicle that moves softly through the streets, preserving an elemental image of the village created piece by piece over the course of centuries. This is us, what we are like, the people of Valeyri, we here, we.

The landscape, or more specifically the weather, is also an additional character. The story is set in Midsummer so there are references to the bright light, the sounds of summer — lawnmowers, motorboats, children playing, birds singing — and the smell of the sea.

Reading And the Wind Sees All in one sitting is advantageous if you want to spot the connections and better understand who’s who and how the characters know one another. I read it on Christmas Day and enjoyed identifying the elements that are repeated across the book, but there are repetitions within chapters that lend the prose a particular rhythm and style.

This is a lovely, graceful  and occasionally bittersweet novel, full of quiet moments of joy, revelation and sadness, a story that invites a second reading to spot the connections you missed first time around.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hannah Kent, historical fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 378 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I may possibly be the last person in the world to read Hannah Kent’s extraordinary debut novel, Burial Rites, which has been lauded far and wide and nominated for almost every prize going since publication last year.

It is one of those rare Australian novels that has achieved international acclaim — and with good reason. This is a universal tale of what it is like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no recourse to proper justice, and it tells the story in such a frank and interesting way that it is difficult to put down. I read it in a matter of days.

A fictionalised true story

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is based on a true story, as the author explains in her note at the end: “Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.” Interspersed with real letters and court documents, the narrative fictionalises the events leading up to the murders and beyond.

When the book opens we meet Agnes almost a year after she has been sentenced to death by beheading.  She has been sent to the north to work her final months on a farm owned by the District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust.

Allowed access to a spiritual adviser to prepare her for “her meeting with Our Lord”, she requests that Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, a young priest she met in passing years earlier, take on this role. But it is a task he is ill-equipped to handle.

Kent sets up her story nicely with a triumvirate of characters —  a convicted killer, a family that doesn’t trust her, and a man of religion — but what happens next isn’t really what you might expect.

During her time on the farm, Agnes changes: she grows in confidence, is less fearful of the future and begins to remember incidents from her past, which are told flashback style (in the first person). But she also has a profound effect on the people with whom she must now live and work among — they begin to see her in a new light, particularly when she tentatively opens up and tells her sometimes shocking, always surprising version of events.

Effortless read

What I loved most about Kent’s story is the effortless way it is told. Her prose style is clean and compelling, although the language — particularly the idioms and some of the dialogue — does occasionally feel too contemporary for the 19th century.

But the way in which the narrative builds and switches between third person (for the District Officer’s family and the reverend) and first person (for Agnes) is one of the book’s great strengths. Not only does it build momentum and provide insights into all of the characters thoughts, it gives the author an effective vehicle for dramatising what happened on the fateful night through the eyes of the person charged with the crime.

Perhaps the only real problem I had with this novel (and I suspect this is unique to me) is that I felt like I’d read it all before — it did not feel as fresh or as original as other reviewers have stated. But I suspect that’s because I’ve spent the best part of 10 years working my way through Arnuldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series. While his novels are set in Iceland in contemporary times, many of them focus on historical crimes, and they’re not dissimilar to Agnes’ situation.

That said Burial Rites is a great read — a proper page-turner with believable characters, a compelling plot that is deftly handled, and a narrative that “zips along” (as a 2011 Booker judge might want to say). It is an incredibly assured debut and it will be interesting to see what Kent comes up with next because for sheer audaciousness — and attention grabbing marketability — this one is going to be hard to top.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…

Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Black Skies’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 330 pages; 2012. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Black Skies, the latest of his work to be translated into English, was first published in his native Iceland in 2008. The time frame is important, because the story is set shortly before the global financial crisis of September 2008 in which Iceland fared so very badly. I’m not sure whether the author wrote the book in the immediate aftermath, or whether he was just incredibly prescient, but the story makes constant reference to people living beyond their means. The main villains also happen to be bankers.

Sigurdur Óli takes centre stage

What is perhaps more interesting is that Black Skies covers the same time period as his last novel, Outrage, so that the crime being investigated in that novel is mentioned in passing in this one. And, just as in Outrage, the morose detective Erlunder —  the usual star of this Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series — is still on a leave of absence. That gives the series’ other main detective, Sigurdur Óli, the chance to take centre stage.

Admittedly, Sigurdur Óli is my least favourite character in previous novels I have read — he’s too opinionated, lacks attention to detail, goes at things like a bull in a china shop. But it is a credit to Indriðason’s skill as a novelist that he makes him more rounded, more human, more empathetic in this story. We get to find out more about his background and his upbringing, and in doing so we learn not just of his weaknesses, but his strengths too.

When the story opens, he is attending a high school reunion, which makes him question his decision to remain in the police force. All his friends are making money, taking advantage of Iceland’s economic boom, while he’s dealing with the country’s low-lifes. His depressive outlook isn’t helped by the fact that his long-term relationship with Bergthóra has finally crumbled because of their inability to have children and his hard-working father has just been diagnosed with prostrate cancer.

Drawn into an investigation by accident

But Sigurdur Óli has a particular weakness. When people ask for a favour, he cannot say no. He spends hours on a tedious and trivial (and from this reader’s point of view, hiliarious) stakeout, trying to track down a newspaper thief on behalf of his mother’s friend. And when an old classmate from high school asks him to warn off a pair of blackmailers, he does so — in an unofficial capacity, thereby putting his career on the line in the process — only to find himself drawn into a mysterious murder investigation involving wife-swapping and incriminating photographs showing illicit sex.

Meanwhile, in a dual narrative, a local middle-aged drunk wreaks revenge on the now elderly step father who destroyed his childhood. He leaves Sigurdur Óli a package containing a mysterious strip of film, which is 12 seconds long, as a tip-off.

These two disparate crimes come together in a most unexpected — and satisfying — way at the very end of this superb police procedural about greed, depravity and murder.

As ever, Indriðason is not afraid to depict the grotty underbelly of Icelandic life in an unsentimental, almost cold and detached, way. Yet he writes with such skill and diplomacy that it’s hard not to come away from his work feeling more empathetic and more compassionate towards one’s fellow human beings. Despite being books about death, there’s something truly life-affirming about Indriðason’s work.

Note, this is the eighth novel in the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, but you don’t need to have read any of the previous titles to appreciate this one — it reads pretty much as a standalone.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iceland, Jón Kalmann Stefánsson, literary fiction, Maclehose Press

‘Heaven and Hell’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson


Fiction – paperback;  Maclehose Press; 215 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell, which is set in Iceland at the turn of the 19th century, explores the fragility of friendship amid the dangers posed by the ocean. A quote on the front cover  describes the book as “an unusually intense reading experience”. I would add that it is heart-breaking and utterly beguiling, too.

Sea-faring drama

The story brings to life a small fishing community at the “far end of the world” — sandwiched between “the sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other” — and is, essentially, a novel of two halves: the first explores a treacherous overnight fishing trip in which one man dies from the ice-cold temperatures; and the second recounts the impact of his death on his closest friend, who is known throughout the narrative as “the boy”.

The first 100 or so pages are among the most exciting — and eloquent — that I have ever read. It is written in the present tense, so the prose is immediate and often electrifying as it draws you into a foreign world full of life-or-death moments. It feels like an adventure story — and brims with heart-hammering drama.
As a portrait of fishermen putting their lives in danger every time they go out on the water it is intimate and fascinating. We learn how much they hate the ocean (“cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes”), the great leveller which does not choose whom to drown and everyone — “rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and sad” — is made equal.

There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it’s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble the lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.

We learn how important religion is to them — they make the sign of the cross over everything and hell is all around, for instance, “hell is having arms but no one to embrace” and “hell is being seasick in a sixareen out on the open sea, needing to work and many hours from shore” — and how dependent they are on the weather, which is often stormy and ominous.

But we also learn how their difficult and often lonely lives are made bearable by small pleasures: letters from their wives and children living on the other side of the mountains, dry socks, newspapers, coffee, brennivín, tobacco, rock candy and books. One particular book — Milton’s Paradise Lost — has special significance in the story, not least because lines of poetry fill the heads of “the boy” and his best friend, Bárđur, who later dies at sea.

A grieving boy

The second half of the story — entitled “The Boy, the Village and the Profane Trinity” — is set on the other side of the mountains, as far from the ocean as the bereaved boy can get. There is a substantial drop in narrative pace, but nonetheless it is a beautiful portrait of small town life, albeit in a 19th century Icelandic village, and of coming to terms with great personal loss.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson is a masterful storyteller. His prose style switches from fable-like simplicity to long, rhythmic, beguiling sentences, and back again. Perhaps it is a strength of Phillip Roughton’s translation that everything flows seamlessly — nothing jars, nothing is out of place. It’s the kind of novel I want to read again, if only to recount the joy of the beautifully crafted sentences, ripe with meaning and metaphor, and to revel in the language Kalmann uses.

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Update: The publisher has alerted me to a wonderful interview with the author on the Maclehose website. It explains that the book is part of a trilogy (the second volume is due for English translation next summer) and that the author is also a poet (hence the poetic nature of his writing and the references to Milton). I also like his references to brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps, which I can verify as a rather deadly drink having once brought back a bottle from Reykjavík!

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Outrage’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 290 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Anne Yates.

Outrage is the seventh book in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, which normally stars the morose detective Erlunder. But having taken a leave of absence, Erlunder’s female colleague, Elínborg, is star of the story instead. It makes for a refreshing change — and a cracking read.

A murdered man

The main plot goes something like this: a telecoms engineer, Runólfur, is found dead in his flat. His throat has been slashed, he is wearing a woman’s too-small t-shirt and his trousers are around his ankles. Later it is discovered that he has taken a large quantity of the date-rape drug rohypnol.

The police believe that he may, in fact, be a rapist and that his murder is a revenge killing. But was he murdered by someone he had raped in his apartment that night, or was it another victim from his secret past?

In this straightforward police procedural Elínborg carries out a painstaking investigation, almost single-handedly. She follows her nose — literally — because the one major clue is a woman’s shawl, found under Runólfur’s bed, which smells, strangely, of Tandoori spices.

During her hunt for the killer, Elínborg interviews Runólfur’s neighbours, colleagues, clients and old friends, trying to build up a picture of his rather mysterious life. She even flies to a remote Icelandic village to meet Runólfur’s mother. But just when you think she’s no closer to finding the killer than when she first started out, the pieces begin to fall into place. The ending is a surprising, but plausible, one.

Elínborg takes centre stage

I had expected to miss Erlunder’s presence in the story, but I found Elínborg a more than adequate substitute. Indeed, I enjoyed finding out about her family life — married with three children and a foster child — and her love of cooking (if you have followed the series, you may recall that in The Draining Lake she is busy promoting a cookbook). She’s also incredibly likable.

As usual in Indriðason’s work, the fast-paced book has an undercurrent of social commentary — mainly about the abhorrent crime of rape, the grubbiness of police work and the need to treat all victims, regardless of their character, in the same way. And it puts the crime into context, exploring its outfall, not just on the victim and perpetrator, but on others caught up in events, past and present.

If you’ve never read this series before, then Outrage may be the place to start — it reads like a standalone and you don’t need to know any of Erlunder’s troubled back history to fully appreciate it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sjón, Telegram

‘The Blue Fox’ by Sjón


Fiction – paperback; Telegram Books; 112 pages; 2008. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

In recent years it’s been hard to move around the blogosphere without stumbling upon a review or mention of Sjón’s The Blue Fox. It won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize — the Nordic equivalent of the Booker Prize — in 2005 and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009, but I suspect part of the reason it’s attracted so much attention lies in the author’s credentials — in 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark, is a long-time collaborator with songstress Bjork and is a well regarded playwright and poet in his native Iceland.  

I was intrigued enough to add it to my wishlist and recently borrowed it from my local library.

19th century Iceland

The story, which is set in Iceland in January 1883, is divided into four parts.

In the first, a priest, Baldur Skuggason, is hunting the enigmatic — and beautiful — blue fox across a snowy landscape. In the second, a naturalist, Fredrik B Fredriksson, is building a coffin and preparing the funeral for Abba, a woman with Down’s Syndrome, whom he rescued from a shipwreck and employed as his assistant for many years. In the third, the priest is trapped in an avalanche, where he has a surreal encounter with the fox, and in the final instalment, a letter, written by Fredrik B, reveals the (unexpected) connections between all the characters.

Essentially, the story is a fairytale, but it also contains elements of the adventure story and the mystery-thriller.

A novella with perfect pacing

And while it is just 112 pages long, it’s not a story to race through but one to savour.

This is helped in part, not only by the beautiful, highly evocative writing, but the layout of the book in which the first 50 pages often only contain one paragraph or sentence per page — “The night was cold and of the longer variety” (page 17) and “The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong” (page 21). This invites you to slow down and to read each page carefully, almost as if you are reading stanzas in a very long poem — and it also helps create the delicious, spine-tingling feeling of being out on a hunt, where every movement is tracked and each second feels like a lifetime.

Sjón has crafted a rather exquisite, highly nuanced novella, one that is cleverly plotted and expertly draws together what seems like two divergent threads into one surprising conclusion.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, CCV Digital, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hypothermia’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 320 pages; 2009. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

Ever since discovering Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series in 2006, I’ve made a point of reading each new release as soon as they have been published in paperback. (All my reviews are on my Arnaldur Indriðason page.)

But with Hypothermia, published in 2009, I left it a bit longer than usual to purchase, mainly because I’d been slightly disappointed with his last outing, Arctic Chill.

But this new novel, the sixth book starring the morose Icelandic police detective Erlunder, is a welcome return to form. Indeed, I wonder if it isn’t his best book yet.

The story is less a police procedural and more a tale about laying ghosts of the past to rest. It ties together multiple story lines involving missing people and murder victims spanning more than 30 years, but does it in such an effortless way it’s not until you reach the last page that you begin to appreciate Indriðason’s magnificent skill as a crime writer, novelist and social commentator.

Hypothermia opens with the suicide of a woman, María, who is found hanging from a beam in her holiday cottage. Her husband Baldvin, a GP, claims she was depressed and still grappling with the death of her own mother two years earlier.

But Detective Erlunder isn’t quite sure that all is as it seems. His curiosity is aroused when María’s best friend gives him a tape recording of María at a seance. He can’t explain it, but he knows that something is not quite right.

He begins poking around in María’s past — her father died in a boating accident when she was a young girl and she developed an incredibly strong bond with her mother as a result — but treads very carefully in order not to arouse suspicion. His investigations are never made official.

Alongside his off-the-record enquiries about María, Erlunder begins investigating two unsolved missing persons cases from the past: a boy in his last year of sixth-form college, who disappeared in February 1976, and a girl studying biology at university, who was reported missing a few weeks later. The two cases have never been linked, but Erlunder begins to wonder if they should be.

“People don’t just walk out of their homes and disappear. They always leave some trace. Except in these two cases. That’s what they have in common. There’s no trace. We have nothing to go on. In either case.”

Things must be quiet on the Reykjavík crime front, because for the entire novel Erlunder does not carry out one official task, either in the suicide case or the missing persons’ case: everything is done on the sly and his colleagues, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, who normally have starring roles, are only referenced in passing.

Indeed, this novel focuses very much on Erlunder’s own personal history in a way that has not been addressed in any of Indriðason’s previous novels. As well as talking about the loss of his own brother who went missing in a snow storm when Erlunder was a child (an incident which plays a central role in each of the books in the Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series), for the first time Erlunder has face-to-face dealings with his ex-wife, Halldora.

They might have been divorced for decades, but Halldora’s bitterness resonates off the page. Her total lack of responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage is echoed in so many of the other characters that Erlunder meets in the course of his investigations: Maria’s mother blames her husband for bringing his death upon himself; and Maria’s husband blames Maria for her own situation.

Indriðason does this a lot in this novel: there are constant recurring themes and motifs, particularly of lakes (Maria’s father drowned in one, the missing girl had an obsession with them), hypothermia (its power to kill, both accidentally and on purpose), suicide (“the act itself frequently came as a total shock and could be committed by people of all ages: adolescents, the middle-aged and elderly”), the after-life (does it exist and how do you prove it?), and being haunted by ghosts, both physical and metaphorical (“You have to free yourself from this ghost,” Eva Lind, Erlunder’s daughter, tells him, referring to the loss of his brother; “It’s because of Maria; she’s haunting me like an old ghost story,” Erlunder tells Baldvin, when he wants to know why Erlunder is hassling him about her suicide.)

Of course the genius comes in linking all these disparate threads together, so that one informs the other. While the conclusion to Hypothermia was somewhat predictable I found it a satisfying, wholly believable one.

But what made this book truly work for me was the way in which Indriðason makes you genuinely feel for the victims and the parents of the missing. How he achieves this is a kind of magic, because his writing style is so understated and sparse it seems devoid of emotion. And yet, by the time you reach the last page, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in your throat…

If the rest in the series are as good as this (according to wikipedia, there are three more published in Icelandic yet to be translated into English), then boy do we have a future treat in store!

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Arctic Chill’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb.

This is the fifth book in Arnaldur Indriðason‘s police procedural series set in Reykjavík that has been translated into English. As usual it stars the morose detective Erlendur and his colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, and revolves around two separate investigations — the murder of a young Thai boy and the disappearance of a married woman.

The first (and main) storyline poses a shocking question up front: was the murder of Elias, the schoolboy, found dead from a knife wound, racially motivated? As the police officers make their inquiries they uncover racial tensions within the local school community — one teacher holds strong views about immigration, for instance, and immigrant pupils are rumoured to be ostracized and bullied by their Icelandic counterparts — which belies Iceland as a cosy, welcoming and liberal nation.

But there are other possibilities too: a suspected paedophile has been spotted in the area and may be responsible. Or was it Elias’ older brother, Niran, who has gone into hiding? And what about Elias’ mother, a Thai divorcee, who is rumoured to have a secret lover — could he be the murderer?

I’m obviously not going to give the plot away, suffice to say that over the course of some 350 pages Erlundur and his cohorts dig around every conceivable lead, uncovering the odd red herring or two, which makes for an exciting read.

The second narrative thread, in which a husband reports his second wife’s disappearance, takes a back seat to the murder investigation, but it adds an additional layer of interest and ratchets up the excitement level by a notch or two.

Despite the cracking storylines, I found this book slightly wearisome. I’m beginning to think I may have just read one too many in this series, because the back story associated with Erlundur’s troubled past — the death of his younger brother when he was a child, his marriage split, his daughter’s drug addiction — was so familiar to me. Of course, Indriðason has to work these references in for the benefit of first-time readers, so he’s forgiven, but it does wear thin if you’ve read the four preceding novels, even with the slight character development that’s apparent.

Still, if you’re looking for a crime novel that’s easy to read, entertaining and has a social conscience, this will tick all the required boxes.