Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir tries not to believe in ghosts. But when Helgi, one of her team is certain he’s seen a man who had been declared dead more than fifteen years ago, she reluctantly gives him some unofficial leeway to look into it. Has the not-so-dead man returned from the grave to settle old scores, or has he just decided to take a last look around his old haunts? Either way, there are people who have nursed grudges for years, hoping for a reckoning one day. Even the rumour of his being alive and kicking is enough to spark a storm of fury and revenge, with Gunnhildur and Helgi caught up in the middle of it…
I am already a confirmed fan of this series, having previously reviewed Thin Ice and Cold Breath and it is a still a source of much puzzlement to me that Quentin Bates still remains relatively little known. Aside from his accomplished translations of Icelandic fiction, I generally find that when I recommend his books in my day job as a bookseller, he becomes a firm favourite, so hopefully I can continue the trend here!
Detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is, without a doubt, the lynchpin to this series, where she carefully balances her traits of fairness and determinedness, with a sharp wit and her reluctance to suffer fools gladly. There’s a great observation by one of her police colleagues, “Gunna had no problem in being downright offensive if she felt it was called for, and it was a brave man who picked an argument with her,” which on the surface shows the more antagonistic aspect of her character, but is roundly applauded and respected for her instincts and intuition too. When I read these books, I always picture Marge Gunderson from Fargo, as Gunna shares many a trait with her, and I also like the fact that her family life, at times complicated, is always incorporated into the books, giving us an even more rounded sense of her balancing the roles of detective of some repute and as a mother, with the challenges that this brings. You always feel that she clasps a bit between her teeth, and one of the cases is no exception with a suspicious suicide and a tangled web of past secrets, but also a case that leads her to navigate the unfamiliar and unscrupulous art world. I also enjoyed the way that a closer focus was put on Helgi, one of Gunna’s police colleagues, as he is on the trail of a face from a past presumed dead, whilst coming to terms with another surprise addition to his brood, and trying to control his wandering eye…
What I love about this series, apart from Gunnhildur and her colleagues , is how Bates consistently draws on his own experiences of living and working in Iceland, providing a real grounded feel and heightened sense of realism to his books. Within this story, the author has ample opportunity to draw us into the workaday world of men at sea, and the dangerous and stressful conditions that this work involves. His descriptions of the stormy seas, the sheer hard physical toil of life, and the stress that life away from home wreaks on family are all beautifully described. You get a real sense of the waves crashing around your ears, and the biting cold permeating you to the core. Aside from this, Bates also casts a perceptive eye on the changes that Iceland has experienced, both politically and socially, in terms of the increase in tourism, the development of the capital city, and the fractures that are appearing more on a social level. Again, this serves to draw the reader in closer to the actual landscape and feel of Iceland, as closely as possible, adding another layer of interest to this police procedural.
There is a real comfort to be had in reading a series where the characters and terrain have become increasingly familiar to you, giving you a feeling very much akin to pulling on a comfy jumper, and being instantly enveloped back into this world and with these people. This series does that perfectly, and as I said in the intro, this is probably one that you might like to discover for yourselves, whether you start with Cold Malice or start from the very beginning. Which as we know, is a very good place to start. Recommended.
(With thanks to the author for the ARC)
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