Former detective Salka Steinsdóttir finds herself unwillingly pitched into the toughest investigation of her life, just as she returns to the tranquil north of Iceland to recover from a personal trauma. The victim is someone she had pursued earlier in her career – and had never been able to pin down. Now a killer has taken the law into their own hands and meted out brutal retribution for ancient crimes. Salka is faced with tracking down the murderer of a stalwart of the church and the community, a man whose reputation stretches deep into the past, and even into the police team tasked with solving the case. As the killer prepares to strike again, Salka and her team search for the band of old friends who could be either killers or victims – or both…
I must admit that the discovery of a new Icelandic author brings a certain touch of excitement, as it is well documented how many there are who have yet to be translated internationally. Well, thanks to Corylus Books, and to Icelandic translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates, it’s time to be introduced to Óskar Guðmundsson, and The Commandments, the first book in a crime series featuring detective Salka Steinsdóttir.
As you would expect, knowing how Icelandic crime authors like to ramp up the darkness, Guðmundsson takes a controversial and pernicious crime as the central theme of his book, allowing him to fully explore the effects on the victims of insidious abuse, and the largely laissez-faire attitude of those who instigate the abuse, until their sins return to haunt them. Indeed, the religious motif runs effectively throughout the book, as the twin emotions of retribution and redemption, extend not only to the central crime investigation, but also in some way to the life of the main police protagonist too. Throughout the book and with great effect, Guðmundsson handles the dark and powerfully emotional subject matter in a contained and almost dispassionate way, giving the reader the space and time to draw on their own empathy with the victims, and to examine and endorse the morality of exacting Old Testament style justice on the perpetrators. This is a dark tale that truly focuses on the core message of human weakness and exploitation, that will haunt the reader for a while after reading…
As crime readers expect, Guðmundsson has a multi-faceted and fascinating police detective Salka Steinsdóttir. at the centre of the book, and refreshingly strays away from the usual location of the capital Reykjavík. Although Steinsdóttir has worked for the police in both Reykjavík and London, this book sees her recuperating in the environs of the northern town of Akureyri, where she is swiftly inveigled in this investigation somewhat against her will. The reasons for her break away from the police are slowly revealed, but as we wait to discover more about her, what comes across most strongly is her inner strength, resolute behaviour, and the appearance of herself as a woman who very much lives life, and conducts herself, on her own terms. There is a good balance to her character, where the maudlin doesn’t overwhelm the hard-headedness, and conversely the hard-headedness doesn’t overwhelm the underlying likeability of her character and her occasional moments of introspection. She is tough, and to a degree cynical, but there is more to her than we are initially aware of, and I enjoyed getting to know her better, and to get a gradually unfolding insight into what made her tick.
Although, to be honest, I don’t think The Commandments brings anything especially new to the genre, I think what Guðmundsson very satisfyingly achieves is a taut and deftly written crime thriller, that contains all the single most important features that readers enjoy in the Icelandic and Scandinavian crime fiction genre. By homing in on an incredibly dark and disturbing psychological theme, which truly exposes the worst of human behaviour, and putting at its heart a less than straightforward police detective, I thoroughly enjoyed this series opener, with as usual an excellent translation by Quentin Bates. Heartened by the news that this is only the first of Guðmundsson’s books to appear in English, I very much look forward to discovering more of his writing in the future. Recommended.
One of the rising stars of Icelandic crime fiction, Óskar Guðmundsson has been writing since he was a youngster, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that his novel Hilma was published – and was an immediate success, winning the Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic crime novel of 2015. This was followed by a sequel, Blood Angels, in 2018. The first of his books to be published in an English translation, The Commandments is a standalone novel which appeared in Iceland in 2019. All of Óskar’s books have been bestsellers and rewarded with outstanding reviews. The TV rights to Hilma have been acquired by Sagafilm. His latest book is The Dancer, which has been published simultaneously as an ebook, audiobook and paperback – accompanied by an original song in which Óskar’s words have been put to music featuring some of Iceland’s leading musicians. Óskar’s talents don’t end there, as he’s also an artist and has held a number of exhibitions of his work.
(With thanks to Corylus Books for the ARC)
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