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Category Archive for 'Iceland'

Reading this recently translated novel by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason feels much like reading a movie. Originally published in 1999, Operation Napoleon is a stand-alone thriller of World War II and its aftermath, not part of the author’s more character-based Erlendur series, with its dark themes and grim visions of human nature. This is not to say that this novel is not also full of violent behavior against innocent characters, but in this novel the villains are the Americans, who will stop at nothing to further America’s global interests. Operating in conjunction with the controversial US Army base in Keflavik, a secret, high tech spy agency, known as “Building 312,” in Washington, DC plans to conduct a mission on Iceland’s largest glacier without the knowledge of their usually cooperative hosts, who know nothing more than a cover story about “routine training” disseminated by US intelligence. The “heroes” of the novel are the honest Icelanders who inadvertently run afoul of American interests. The paranoid Americans in charge of the mission will stop at nothing, including cold-blooded murder, in order to accomplish their ends.

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“Hilarious” is certainly not a word that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Icelandic writing. Arnaldur Indridasson, the most famous contemporary writer in Iceland, pens mysteries which are among the darkest, gloomiest, and most haunting ever written, the pinnacle of Nordic noir. Clearly, life in Iceland can be tough. So when I stumbled across The Pets, by Bragi Olafsson, in the “used” section of my favorite bookshop, I was amazed to see it described as “hilarious”—a book written by a young author who still lives in Iceland and who manages to find humor, even slapstick humor, in life in this cold, dark country. Main character Emil Halldorsson has been away in London, celebrating his million-kronur lottery win (about $8500) with a two-week vacation from the hardware store where he works. While he is gone, a man in an anorak and a plastic bag visits his house but does not leave a message. When Emil returns, he recognizes who it is, and when the man breaks in, Emil hides under the bed, at which point the man makes himself at home and invites all Emil’s friends to a party. Hilarious, indeed.

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Having lived in Iceland for over ten years, Quentin Bates got to know the country and its politics well, before moving back to the UK during Iceland’s continuing economic crisis. He had observed political corruption there with fresh eyes, and he now uses his outrage as the basis of this complex and unusual murder mystery in which he illustrates how some elected officials are able to parlay their connections into illegal gains and large personal bank accounts. Officer Gunnhildur, a widow described as a “big fat lass with a face that frightens the horses,’ has been with the police department for sixteen years and now runs the police station in the small village of Hvalvik. When the body of an unidentified young man is found in the water beside the docks, Gunna investigates, and when she discovers that one of the victim’s close friends was killed in a road accident the previous spring, she becomes sure that it is murder. Both had been interested in Clean Iceland, an organization which promotes clean energy and keeps an eye on dams, the environment, and power sources. At issue is a contract that has been awarded recently for the building of a privately run smelting company across the bay, and that company and its public relations offshoot, Spearpoint, are directly connected to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and run by the wife of one of the ministers.

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Anyone who enjoys mysteries is surely familiar by now with the growing list of Nordic authors who specialize in crime and all its horror, but these authors do not write purely for macabre sensation (though the macabre is not unknown to them). All are writers with larger themes and scopes, and many use repeating characters who keep the reader involved as they solve new crimes and reveal more and more personal aspects from their own lives. For Stieg Larsson, it was journalist Mikael Blomqvist and his computer expert friend Lisbeth Salander. For Henning Mankell, it is Kurt Wallender. For Arnaldur Indridason, the darkest of the novelists, it is Inspector Erlendur, known by his last name almost exclusively. Jo Nesbo features Harry Hole, and Karin Fossum, the most psychological of the authors, repeats with Inspecter Sejer. For Camilla Lackberg, all her novels take place in her own hometown, Fjallbacka, a fishing community in which the whole town’s characters play a role. Her second novel to be translated into English, THE PREACHER, is due in April. (Links to reviews of books by six authors follow.)

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Those who are already familiar with the five earlier novels in this Icelandic mystery series featuring Erlendur Sveinsson know that Erlendur is a dark, gloomy, introspective, but caring man who does not share much about his life. As the series has developed, however, so has the main character, Erlendur. It is almost as if he has become less shy—as if he has decided to reveal himself to his readers in ways that were not possible in the first novel, Jar City. The hanging death of a young woman at a remote vacation cottage on Lake Thingvellir piques the curiosity of Erlendur when it is discovered that the victim, Maria, is from the Reykjavic area, a married history scholar who has had difficulties coping with the death of her mother two years earlier. Though local police have declared the death a suicide, a good friend suggests to Erlendur that she does not believe the woman, Maria, killed herself.

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