“[It’s] a homegrown Icelandic scandal of the kind that we’ve seen so many times before…Public money is used to set up a dodgy company that then gets floated while all the scumbags in the know get share options. They get a fat contract through some shady back-door deals with other government departments…and the moment the contract…becomes public their share value will go through the roof.”
Having lived in Iceland for over ten years, Quentin Bates had a chance to get 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 in Iceland with the fresh eyes of a newcomer, 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, while moving the country toward bankruptcy. Officer Gunnhildur, a widow described alternately as “robustly built” and 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. Obviously not a member of the “boy’s club” which handles most of the action in Reykjavik, Gunna has had to work hard to gain the respect that she deserves. She is, however, smart and conscientious, usually taking care of business through her knowledge of the community.
When the body of an unidentified young man is found in the water beside the docks, Gunna investigates, but it quickly becomes clear that she will need more resources, and those can only come from higher-ups in Reykjavik. This is a time of economic crisis, and everyone is worried about their diminishing resources, the falling housing market, a jittery business environment, a health system which may be privatized, and unemployment, so Gunna’s ability to gain one more investigator to help her and her one other officer—“older, but junior”—is welcomed. Department higher-ups want to write this off as the death of an intoxicated person who fell off the dock and drowned, but Gunna does not believe it, 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.
Author Bates keeps the action and interest high as he handles many subplots simultaneously. A mysterious “Skandalblogger” constantly roils the political waters as he posts regular updates on political scandals, relays rumors, and chides politicians: “We’ve heard the rumours circulating around environment and trade, and the PM’s office, and we’re not going to believe it, as we know what a great guy you really are. We are absolutely certain that you’d never sideline the National Power Authority….” A young magazine writer is “shadowing” Gunnhildur for a story he plans to write about her, and he often discovers information that is helpful to her. One of Gunna’s own relatives has been mixed up in crime in the past and may now be involved with the person whom she suspects of being a murderer. Whether the suspect is colluding with politicians is an open question. Gunna, with two fatherless children, has home responsibilities, and as she becomes more and more involved in this investigation, she must consider an offer from a higher-up that she accept a job as chief of a tiny station on the other side of the country.
Over two dozen characters, all having unfamiliar Icelandic names, nicknames, and aliases, are involved in action that takes place on many levels at once, in a variety of places which also have unfamiliar names. As the characters move from the murder subplot into other areas of the story, their exact roles become less clear and may overlap, forcing the reader to stay alert for small clues and bits of information. Dialogue is especially important here in conveying personality and motivation and is a key to helping the reader stay abreast of the interrelationships as the action unfolds. Complex, full of detail, and very carefully planned, the various subplots all come together effectively at the end.
The first of a new series starring Officer Gunnhildur, Frozen Assets sets a high bar for the additional mysteries which are expected to follow. (The second in the series, entitled Cold Comfort, is tentatively scheduled for release in the US on January 3, 2012.) Not as dark as the Icelandic mysteries of Arnaldur Indridason, Frozen Assets aims for a broader scope. However, the intensity of the Indridason mysteries, related to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere, is missing here as the reader’s attention is drawn to far more subplots, places, and characters. Time will tell whether Gunnhildur becomes for Bates the compelling (and popular) figure that Inspector Erlendur has become for Arnaldur Indridason. In the meantime, Iceland is providing much new local color for its new “Nordic noir” novels.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://graskeggur.com
The author indicates that Hvalvik is a fictional place but that it has much in common with Grindavik, shown here. The photo of the power plant beside the Blue Lagoon is by Paul A. Souders: www.guardian.co.uk . Iceland now gets 100% of its power and heat from renewable sources, much of it geothermal.
Gunna’s husband was a fisherman. The fishing fleet is the only group in the country to continue to use fossil fuels for power, but plans are underway to convert that industry to hydrogen fuel cells within the next 20 – 30 years: www.guardian.co.uk
The main street of Seydisfjordur, the small town where Gunna has been offered a “promotion,” is seen here: http://patulkaa.jogger.pl