Having read and enjoyed all of Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur books, I was anxious to read this first of a new series of historical crime novels set in Iceland during World War II.
In 1944, the semi-clad body of a young woman is found behind the National Theatre in Reykjavík. Flóvent, an Icelandic detective with Reykjavík’s fledgling Criminal Investigation Department, and Thorson, an Icelandic-Canadian seconded to the American military police, collaborate to identify the victim and the killer. In the present, Konrád, a retired police detective, helps look into the death of Stefán Thordarson whose personal possessions include newspaper clippings about the wartime murder.
I did not find that this book measures up to the quality of the Erlendur books. The slow pace of this police procedural was frustrating at times. The dialogue was stilted. And there were too many clichés: “She nearly jumped out of her skin” and “He nearly jumped out of his skin” and “chatted to her about everything under the sun”.
Perhaps these latter are a product of poor translation, but there are other weaknesses as well. For instance, the links between the wartime murder and Konrád’s childhood seem too coincidental. Then there’s the introduction, very late in the novel, of the point of view of Thordarson to explain the last few days of his life. This technique seems like the author taking an easy way out.
One of the aspects I most enjoyed is the novel’s touches on Icelandic history and culture. I learned, for example, about the Situation, the liaisons between soldiers and Icelandic women; I had never considered the impact of tens of thousands of servicemen pouring into a city with a population of only 40,000. The references to Icelandic folklore, especially the huldufólk or hidden people, are interesting.
The independence of Iceland was also something I had known nothing about: at Þingvellir on June 17, 1944, when Iceland was occupied by the Allies and Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, Iceland unilaterally declared independence from Denmark. (Having recently visited Þingvellir, where the Alþingi, the world’s first parliament, was founded in 930 and where the Icelandic nation agreed to adopt Christianity in the year 1000, I understand why Icelanders chose this site for its declaration of independence and why the site is a national shrine.)
I’m not sure where the Reykjavík Wartime mystery series goes from here. (Does it follow more of Flóvent’s cases during the war? Unfortunately, I didn’t find that the detective is developed in sufficient depth. Thorson had more interest for me but primarily because of his Canadian roots in Manitoba and because the information given about his personal life adds another dimension.) I’m also not sure I will revisit the series when the next installment is released.