In Reykjavík in 1973, police investigate the death of Jacob Kieler Jr. who was found dead in his home. His father, a prominent engineer obsessed with building a national railroad, had been killed in the same way in the same spot almost 30 years earlier. The story focuses on the police investigation, giving the perspectives of various members of the investigative team, and Jacob Sr.’s diaries written between 1910 – 1945. The police set out to find the connection between the two deaths.
The book is very slow-paced. Not only does the investigation proceed slowly, but the diary entries included at the end of each chapter slow things down even further. The diary entries reveal Jacob Sr.’s fixation with trains and give historical information about Iceland in the first half of the 20th century, but do little to advance the plot. The constant rambling on and on about trains becomes tedious.
Is there anything less interesting than journal entries that read like this: “There are two locomotives: Pionér, built by Arnold Jung in Germany in 1892; and Minør, built by Jungenthal in Bei Kirchen in Germany the same year. The gauge is 90 cm . . . ” and “the professor shows us calculations on energy efficiency for railway trains powered by steam. Apparently only 6% efficiency is achieved. I am looking forward to learning about locomotives powered by electricity. The professor says that such a train was first demonstrated here in the city in 1879, and the first extensive electric railroad, between Bitterfeld and Dessau, was open in 1911 (15 kV, 16.7 Hz). An engine that Rudolf Diesel had completed before his death last year is also thought to be very promising.” and “Mauretania is 31,932 tons, 232 meters in length, and achieves a maximum speed of 25 knots, one of the fastest ships now sailing the Atlantic Ocean.” and “Plotted the Threngsli gradient survey onto graph paper. Weighed myself, I am 73 kilos . . .” and “The cross ties (1.60 x 0.22 x 0.11 m) will be made of impregnated pinewood mounted with 12-cm-wide baseplates. The price, 6.00 kr. per item, is a little high, but is based on the present high price of timber and the cost of creosote being 150 kr./ton.” My eyes glazed over several times!
There is a lot of unnecessary information given outside the journal entries as well. The author feels he has to explain the technology used by the investigators. For example, “he did have equipment back at the lab for doing a so-called paraffin test, where warm paraffin wax was applied to the hands to see if they revealed nitrates left by a gunshot, but recent research had shown this method to be very inaccurate.” Then there’s this explanation: “Fingerprint powder works by sticking to traces of grease left behind when a finger touches an object; the grease carries the same pattern as the finger itself, and the powder therefore displays an accurate copy of it. The trick was to use the right powder for the circumstances. It must not cling to the surface bearing the fingerprint, and it must be the correct color: black powder was used on light surfaces, gray powder on dark ones. Different methods were applied depending on whether the fingerprints were old or recent. This powder was designed to show up on only recent prints, those containing grease and moisture, and not old prints, which consist mainly of salts.” Such extraneous details just slow down the pace even further. This is a novel, not a technical manual on forensic methodology.
There is little character development. Egill, incompetent and aggressive, is a stereotypical bad cop. Hrefna, the only woman on the police team, has the most potential as a round character but there is insufficient focus on her. Why include the death of a very minor character instead of developing the main characters?
The ending is very dramatic with several major surprises. The solution to the mystery surrounding the deaths of father and son is a bit far-fetched; it made me think of something one would find in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
The storyline has potential, but was clumsily executed. A good editor would have tightened the plot and insisted on more character development. Thematic development could also be improved so obvious statements like “Perhaps things will change one day, and people will be able to live the way they were created” and “Many a man might have gained wisdom had he not considered himself wise already” would be unnecessary.
Though I tend to like Icelandic mysteries, this one was a disappointment.