Hoping to put behind him tragedy in his professional life and to resolve the turmoil in his personal life, Reykjavík police officer Guðgeir Fransson has moved as far away from home as he can, marking time in a dead-end job in a small town in eastern Iceland.
His detective’s instincts are triggered when he hears about a foreign woman who arrived in this tight-knit community – and then disappeared as suddenly as she had appeared. The trail of the missing woman takes him back to Reykjavík, and then to a remote farmhouse beneath dark mountains where an elderly woman and her son live with their sinister past…
As the nights draw in and our thoughts turn towards the Icelandic tradition of Jólabókaflóð, wrapping up cosily and reading on the cold, winter nights, The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir, fits the bill perfectly. With a slow, creeping feeling of unease in its sinister central plot, and all the atmosphere and otherworldly elements of a traditional Scandinavian folktale, Pálsdóttir, with a perfectly rendered translation from fellow author Quentin Bates, proves to be a striking new voice in Icelandic fiction…
Similarly to Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series whose central character ups sticks from Reykjavík to a more remote community, so Pálsdóttir’s main character Guðgeir Fransson, on suspension from the police force has retreated to the small town of Hofn, where he lives a solitary existence. Estranged from his family and eking out a living as a security guard, his days are defined by personal and professional anxiety, as the reasons for his exile remain shrouded in mystery for the greater portion of the book. Cleverly this not only paves the way for more reveals at a later point, but also toys with the reader’s empathy, as on the surface we see a man adrift, possibly culpable or guilty of a former police colleague’s fate, whose personal life is fraught with uncertainty, but who also appears to be a decent man, with a strong moral core.
I instantly took to him, with his gruff, unpolished character, and his tenacity and determination to solve this perplexing mystery, through the cloud of disillusionment that hangs over him. I thought the scenes with his estranged wife Inga were very powerful indeed, with this awful stilted communication, filled with gaps in their dialogue that spoke more than their words in between, and it was a perfect portrayal of the recrimination and festering tensions that can break the marital bond. It’s no mean feat to invent a character such as Fransson, robust enough to hang an entire series on, if this is Pálsdóttir’s intention, but this proves to be a strong start, with plenty of scope for his character and back story to be further developed.
Regular readers of this genre, will full appreciate the strange ethereal atmosphere that permeates this book throughout, and adds a frisson of the supernatural to the story. The book is primarily focussed on the fate of Sajee, a Sri Lankan woman lured to this community with the offer of a job, but whose fate becomes the stuff of rumour and supposition with her instant disappearance. Obviously, there is a particularly unsettling and disturbing reason for her vanishing act, which suffice to say, I will not elaborate on here to avoid spoilers. Take it from this reviewer though, it’s good and dark and creepy, with some particularly unpleasant individuals involved. There is a slow, solid pace to the book, so reminiscent of the Scandinavian genre generally, that keeps the reader on a constant state of high alert, waiting for the reveal, the unexpected jump, the scary moment. Although I did find the reasons for her disappearance and subsequent treatment a little muddied at times, I did appreciate the consistent air of tension that Pálsdóttir evokes throughout the book, which perfectly mirrors the foreboding landscape and mercurial weather that forms a sold backdrop to the story. The weaving in and out of the story of elements of Icelandic folklore, working in concert with the own supernatural beliefs of Sajee’s Sri Lankan culture is a particular highpoint in the story too, and the symmetry and similarities between the two paths of belief in the folkloric and the ethereal is very well depicted and combined.
Consequently, The Fox was very enjoyable, so redolent of this unique voice of the Scandinavian crime genre, containing all the recognisable elements that so endears crime readers to these books, and with an understated and polished translation by Quentin Bates. Packed full of atmosphere with a pervading feeling of threat and ominous intent, Pálsdóttir has created a strong central character in Guðgeir Fransson, which bodes well for further additions to the series, and by insinuating episodes of the supernatural to the main plot, gave the book some intriguing little layers of darkness and strangeness to the whole affair. A sometimes bleak, but ultimately life affirming read, and an author to watch…
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Paperbacks available directly from the publisher (while stocks last) £7.50 + £2.50 p&p for UK and €8 +€4 p&p for anywhere in Europe until the end of December 2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Also E-Books available from Kobo/ Amazon.
For more information about Corylus publishing visit their webpage here, their Facebook or their Instagram. Check out the interview between Dr Noir and Sólveig Pálsdóttir on YouTube from the 10th of December, on the Newcastle Noir YouTube Channel here
With thanks to Corylus Books for the ARC.