A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

What better phrase to use while entering the third lockdown in the UK… A song of isolation indeed. Gone are for now thoughts of travelling. Around the globe other countries introduce new restrictions. Involuntary isolation, being lonely and being alone might take on special meaning in the current situation but are not that different from what Michael J Malone portrayed in his latest novel. The emotions are raw.

Imagine three lives side by side, just moving towards the future. Nice calm Scottish neighbourhood. Silver screen star Amelie Hart’s fame follows her wherever she turns, and in spite of her unexpected disappearance from the shiny universe of film five years ago, any mention of her name can still attract rumour-hungry vultures. Yet in her quiet house she feels reasonably content. She shares home with boyfriend Dave, an ordinary guy, accountant, keen gardener, and decent neighbour, interested in keeping in touch with parents and just being at home. A man who does not care about the spotlights and gossip, or any glamour that was part of Amelie’s experience. Despite some tension between them he is just about to propose. And there’s Damaris, a bored eleven-years-old girl next door who often crosses the boundary between gardens to get some attention from Dave, talk about plants, or to play Frisbee.

And then the three lives collide in the most horrendous way when Dave gets arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. He desperately asserts his innocence but the judicial system is quickly in full swing and within hours his life is destroyed. Initial stay in prison, trial and sentencing put the end to his relationship with Amelie, and to the normal existence. Term paedophile means death by hatred. Amelie refuses to denounce him and soon needs to escape abroad to hide from the journalists who focus on her status to sell as many stories as possible. As the adults, including Dave’s parents, try to come to terms with the devastating consequences of what they anticipate are lies, another much younger victim is unable to deal with own emotions and fall-out in the family. Damaris tries to find a way to cope with experience of being the centre of attention for a very disturbing reason, and feeling isolated in the world consisting of half-truths. Her path from childhood to teenage years begs the questions on skewed parenting.

Yet again, Michael J Malone takes the contemporary issues and throws them into the wolves, or rather to the modern society that chews and spits out everything. His perception of emotional effects on each person in the story is superbly presented as he is acutely aware of various methods to manipulate the facts, and even more, of trying to discover and recognize what the truth really is, and whose version of events, of what has, or not, happened, is accurate. Trial by social media, greed, physical and psychological violence from every direction. Opinions based on superficial comments. Strong desire to punish those who commit unspeakable acts towards the others, and harshness of the legal system. All these elements provide strong background for the most human drama at its core. As the story unfolds and we learn more about reasons behind Amelie’s sudden withdrawal from the public eye, Dave’s trauma, and Damaris’ pain, we can only appreciate the craft and mastery of Malone’s writing.

Heart-wrenching A Song of Isolation is dark and brutal, perfectly structured, and unforgettable, in some sections difficult to read, yet important, with a hint of hope and totally gripping. However, it can bring some respite and hope to all of us.

A Song of Isolation, published by Orenda Book, is available via Bookshop.org and the usual online retailers

Books of 2020

Choosing favourite books is always a tricky business. How do you look back at the last twelve months and decide to list a small fraction of books that had left huge impression and unforgettable images, made you question some issues, pushed you into uncomfortable yet interesting territories, or transported you to a totally different world.

My reviews have been published in three places, and my reading habits do not always follow the noise of freshly published novels hitting the virtual or real shelves, nor the current promotional campaigns. Which means I am yet to read the sensational releases of 2020. Below is a selection of six titles that made me stop, gasp or think extra hard. Some have been published in 2019. All are excellent in their styling, narration, themes and impact.

First two novels are from Iceland, both translated by Quentin Bates.

Betrayal by Lilja Sigurðardóttir is a superbly constructed political thriller depicting personal traumas and deeply buried painful secrets. In the process of analysing how various people deal with making difficult decisions it also delivers a critique of the society which might not be as perfect as fans of Iceland would like to believe. The author paints a full picture of Úrsula, a complex troubled woman suffering from PTSD and evaluating own life, strained relationship with her husband, and effects of alcoholism and homelessness on her family. Suddenly thrown into the world of politics she must deal with numerous challenges while trying to maintain the position of a well-meaning beacon of change. The sense of betraying and being betrayed does not leave main players in the novel. Diverse cast of characters propel the story into a stunning finale while providing basis for the nuanced analysis of deceit in many guises: personal, political, social.

In The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir’s passion for life and art merges elements of Nordic and Eastern culture and folklore, and places them in the contemporary reality of the contrast between native Icelanders and immigrants. She writes passionately and with verve, weaving fascinating strands of modern harsh realism and ethereal atmosphere into a captivating psychological portrait of individuals locked into isolation, trauma and mental health. Her understanding for the main characters shines throughout the novel, with the titular chained fox representing physical shackles and restrains of the mind. The novel combines two perspectives of events seen by Sajee, from Sri Lanka, coming from a culture of respecting reincarnation and holy men, and with clear distinction between good and evil spirits, and detective Guðgeir, who although demoted, disappointed with himself and feeling far away from Reykjavik, takes Sajee’s peculiar situation seriously and embarks on an unofficial search when he realises that the woman might be missing. He essentially believes in another human being.

From Finland comes Deep as Death by Katja Ivar, as Detective Hella Mauzer fired from the police and trying to survive as a private investigator, searches for a serial killer who might have been responsible for several deaths, including those of local prostitutes. She is stubborn as hell, and a misunderstood feminist ahead of the times, in the chilling post-war climate, while struggling with personal demons. The story itself could be regarded as the manual of perfectly executed manipulation, a truly masterful art of deception handbook where the main player scrupulously justifies every single step while everyone else tries either to survive or to climb the rickety social ladder. Obviously Hella is not the Machiavellian princess here as she blunders through the investigation in Helsinki, constrained by own loneliness and despair to be loved, and by the tough circumstances of Finnish life in the 1950s. This fine psychological thriller fits firmly in the Nordic Noir sphere, bringing together all elements of the chilling genre and weaving in the private links and social issues. Fighting against crime and prejudices continue.

Two voices from Norway represent different eras.

The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton was first published more than 110 years ago, and in 2017 was voted the greatest Norwegian crime novel of all time by Norway’s crime writers’ association, inspiring creation of the Riverton Prize. The classic story set on an idyllic holiday island where hotel guests enjoy long summer days under the midnight sun, is told by an unnamed narrator, a young man extremely sensitive to the changes in the weather and in the social atmosphere. Two murders later, a detective, Asbjørn Krag, summoned from the capital, starts an investigation. The violent events occurring in quick succession do not surprise the locals, as many believe in the legend of the ghostly iron chariot that rambles aimlessly through the plains and along the rugged coast, announcing tragic deaths. Despite its age Jernvognen does not feel dated as Lucy Moffatt’s seamless contemporary translation, true to the original style, renders with clarity the atmospheric, almost gothic, setting.

Much more recent is I Will Miss You Tomorrow by Heine Bakkeid, translated by Anne Bruce. A damaged ex-Chief Inspector Thorkild Aske has just left prison, his life in tatters but was asked to find a young man, Rasmus, who has disappeared off the North Norwegian coast. Rasmus is the cousin of Frei, the woman that Thorkild still loves but whom he has accidently killed. The book introduces a complex man who against all odds and very questionable choices seems likeable enough for the reader to feel for him. It was truly a tense experience waiting to find out whether he would survive the psychological torments, physical agony and the freezing waters of the dangerous Arctic seas. This damaged ‘hero’ reminds me so much of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, hated alike by serial killers he had pursued and his own colleagues, yet loved by many women and readers worldwide. As Thorkild seems to evoke similar reactions, I can only admire the author’s exceptional and engaging writing in his first venture into crime fiction.

And last but not least: FrenchNoir. Wild Dog by Serge Joncour, in translation by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, an intense and truly philosophical thriller. Travelling through time, it seamlessly binds together the varied yet similar life experiences of people in an untouched location in the Auvergne region of France. The suspense seeps from each exquisitely crafted sentence, taking the reader into a world replete with complex emotional and moral dilemmas. Both a semi-practical guide to self-preservation and a homage to space and calm, it is also a grand metaphor for the human condition, asking the eternal question: what makes us different from the animals? The narrative alternates between three weeks in August 2017 and events in the summer of 1914. The pervading heat, the sense of impending doom, and the confrontation with their primal fears all serve to blur the lines between the characters’ intellectual and visceral understandings of life, and therefore our own. Wild Dog’s richness of thought, its layered narrative strands and its tense undercurrents make it a raw, brutal and magnificent literary experience.

Happy New Year 2021! Here’s to more brilliant books!

Christmas audio puzzle anyone?

2020 means the year of the most dramatic changes, global pandemic, magnitude of challenges; despair and chaos. But as we began living in a strange reality 2020 also brought new ways of connecting and keeping in touch, realisation what is important to us, and who are the significant people in our lives.

I am not alone in missing the physical book events, especially some crime fiction festivals where I volunteer. Or volunteered in the previous years. An opportunity to see and hear the authors in real life, meeting old friends and making new ones, chatting with other readers, bloggers, reviewers and fans. This feeling of connection and sharing common interests, jokes, inspirations and hugs, is irreplaceable.  

Yet, yet… creativity of creative and artistic people knows no bounds. It is not easy to change plans at short notice, to deal with the overwhelming sense of disappointment, to struggle with financial and practical constraints, and to dismantle programmes of festivals and other events that have been carefully put together over many months. The urgency to keep spreading the word about books and authors remains. Thanks to the wonders of technology, even if it gets so damn frustrating and exhausting, and ingenuity of quick-thinking people we reluctantly and with some reservations moved into the virtual world of book connections. New online platforms emerged, new words entered our vocabularies. YouTube is the God of this new status quo that might last for months, or years. Even if the world calms down a touch, I do not think we will be going back to constant travelling and attending physical events. Even if we can and want.

In a spirit of Christmas past, present and future, I would like to propose that we try to assemble an audio puzzle of various voices and numerous pieces available online, to immerse ourselves in the words of internationally acclaimed writers, emerging authors, new writing ideas and old familiar wonderful emotion of getting lost in a fascinating book. The suggestions below represent only a snippet of what has been recorded in the last eight or nine months, and what is quite special to me.

As the March lockdown in UK frightened us into hiding and contemplating, William Shaw might have been the first author embracing live events via his Facebook page, and chatting to friends. All these conversations can be found on William Shaw – YouTube.

Noir at the Bar, Newcastle moved from a real bar to yes, our living rooms and kitchens, and became Virtual Noir at the Bar. Organised by Vic Watson and Simon Bewick, it grew from strength to strength culminating in the most joyful sessions where authors – best sellers, award winners and up-and-coming – read from their work to the enthusiastic public, and a brilliant collection Noir from the Bar: 30 Crime and Mystery Shorts was published, with profits being donated to NHS charities.

Organisers of Newcastle Noir turned their the highly-anticipated super friendly and inclusive crime fiction festival into a virtual event NewcastleNoir – YouTube. Jacky Collins aka Dr Noir did not stop there. As part of Honey and Stag Events, the team behind Noir at the Bar, Edinburgh, together with Kelly Lacey she started a new venture: literary events for all genres, including panels, book launches.

Orenda Books, famous for its Orenda Roadshow, that’s right – roadshow, moved their book launches into the virtual venues which meant that there were extra opportunities for more people to join (via Zoom links) the chats with authors such as Lilja Sigurdardóttir, Gunnar Staalesen, Roxanne Bouchard, Agnes Ravatn, Ragnar Jónasson. Here you can watch Orenda Books – YouTube, including the most recent video, a special Christmas treat: If I Whisper My Christmas Wish, written by Louise Beech, Michael J Malone and Matt Wesolowski, and read by the international team of Orenda authors.   

Dark nights, warm blanket, hot drink, maybe some cake. Let the magic of books take over for a while. Watch or listen, and enjoy. Let’s hope all links work. Let’s hope 2021 is kinder.

Merry Christmas! God Jul! Wesołych Świąt!

Betrayal / Svik

Reykjavik Noir trilogy consisting of Snare (2017), Trap (2018) and Cage(2019) introduced the English-speaking readers to Lilja Sigurðardóttir, the Icelandic author and screenwriter daring to venture into the dangerous territory of the contemporary Iceland and creating exciting fictional yet credible reality. Iceland of her design is a place distant from the shiny image of the traveller paradise, famous for Aurora Borealis, glaciers, whales, sharks and puffins. Snow does not offer reprieve nor the happy relaxed atmosphere of a tourist Northern Mecca. She takes on financial crash and its consequences, drug smuggling, hints of true-life menace, uncompromising female protagonists, excellent portrayal of the main LGBT heroine, superb characterisation, and various aspects of love, all themes wrapped up in a breathtakingly thrilling storytelling. We wanted more.

The translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates is again behind bringing sharp sparkly intense Icelandic sentences into English in the latest novel Betrayal which presents yet another view of Iceland. The succinct description is intriguing:

Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.
 
But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?
 
As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…

The superbly constructed political thriller depicts personal traumas and deeply buried painful secrets. In the process of analysing how various people deal with making difficult decisions it also delivers a critique of the society which might not be as perfect as we, fans of Iceland, would like to believe. However, as Sigurðardóttir casts her eye on the local matters such as rejection of a popular road proposal, or the serious naming committee focused on traditional children’s names, she puts these topics in much wider context. Úrsula becomes a centre point for various agendas, a well-meaning beacon of change; nevertheless, she is unable to fulfil all demands. She is after all a complex troubled woman suffering from PTSD and evaluating own life, strained relationship with her husband Nonni, and effects of alcoholism and homelessness on her family. Sudden thrust into the public scene brings numerous challenges. The sense of betraying and being betrayed does not leave her as she must face power games, political intrigues and accusations. It also applies to others who come to contact with her. Gunnar, the bodyguard repressing own emotions; Stella, the cleaner with penchant for witchcraft; homeless Pétur, terrified of Devil presenting himself in human form. Diverse cast of characters propel the story into a stunning finale while providing basis for the nuanced analysis of deceit in many guises: personal, political, social. Damaged lives and consequences of taking tough choices, or lack of, are treated sensitively, with compassion. The incredibly clever interpretation of actions into a flowing narration makes is attractive to readers of different criminal tastes.

The author applies her musings of daily life (using Tinder app, sharing a cigarette, disposing of sensitive documents) and masterfully weaves them into bigger issues, shaping a story that could have been quite an ordinary, into something unique and very special that resonates on many levels. It crosses the boundaries and travels into the sphere of global attention, and makes us realise that geographical distance of the country does not make it impossible to be fully engaged in international matters. The role of women is never underestimated in Sigurðardóttir’s books, yet she is fully aware of the chronic misogyny in the world she wants to capture and portray.

I make no apologies for singing Sigurðardóttir’s paeans, and will do it again when another book appears. Her work is immersed in Icelandic literary tradition, with the insight into the huge impact of influential Nobel Prize winning novel Independent People by Halldór Laxness on the country’s psyche. At the same time her own understanding of seeing the world and opening to the new experiences add original voice to the exclusive group of Icelandic authors established outside Iceland. Her creative output increases in strength and variety, while her international attraction continues to grow. This is good. Stunning powerful storytelling with a razor-sharp edge, fast-paced and tense narration and utterly modern style is what we need to enjoy and appreciate.

2020 Petrona Award Winner

This year’s Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year was not announced at the CrimeFest in Bristol. Nor it was discussed widely in the spring as it has been the tradition so far. All die-hard fans of the Scandinavian crime fiction waited with bated breath for the results of the deliberations as the renowned judges Jackie Farrant, Dr Kat Hall and Jake Kerridge read and analysed 37 books. Finally, the shortlist of six excellent titles was published and now we have the winner: Little Siberia by Antti Tuomainen, translated from Finnish by David Hackston, and published by Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books.

I couldn’t resist looking back at my own review of the winning novel. It was originally published on Crime Review and I’m happy to share it again.

Antti Tuomainen and Lilja Sigurdardottir, both serious, at the Embassy of Iceland in November 2018, during their joint book launch

One winter night a meteorite plunges from the sky into a passenger seat of a high-spec rally car, driven at ridiculous speed by an intoxicated former champion who wants to end his life in style. But the spectacular death does not materialise. Instead the cosmic intervention near the village of Hurmevaara stops the suicidal driver and causes the biggest possible stir. Nobody has heard of this snow-covered place in northern Finnish wilderness until the precious lump of rock discovered there becomes valued at about a million euros. It is placed at the local war museum for four days until specialists from London arrive to retrieve it for research. Instantly, this message from the heavens becomes an object of interest and target for thieves and chancers of any calibre, both provincial and foreign.

Pastor Joel Huhta volunteers to guard this remarkable gem at night. Immediately during the first watch someone attempts to steal it. Joel, a former soldier with vast experience of combat and fighting enemies on the foreign front, feels suited to the role of the main investigator, not attracted by the big money but keen to preserve the treasure for the scientists. He’s a complicated man, dealing with a magnitude of issues of a personal and public nature as he needs to tend to his followers, including regular conversations with a churchgoer convinced that world is on its last legs. Even though Joel comes from a religious family, doubts about his faith plague him often. War has left him slightly traumatised, and after an accident, also unable to have children, a fact that so far, he has failed to disclose to his wife Krista. When she happily announces that she’s pregnant, he is in shock. Joel cannot be the father and he cannot admit to her what has occurred during his active service. With everything that happens in the village things don’t get any easier and the list of both suspected thieves and fathers of his own child grows by the hour.

Antti Tuomainen is rightly considered to be the funniest crime fiction writer in Europe. But what he delivers is not just a bag of belly laughs. Instead he draws on the innermost personal human feelings, puts them against some serious problems and in the context of conflict between private desires and absurdity of the world he analyses how we all might react. The results are hilarious, funny, imaginative and often very touching. Like the earlier novels Little Siberia, in brilliant translation by David Hackston, bears all the marks of his honed style, mixing sacred and profane, serious and comical. At the same time, it’s a fast-paced tale of an amateur investigator. The richness of well-developed characters and a dry sense of humour take on the relationships in the village bring this awkward story to another level.

The nearly forgotten isolated place in Finland, close to the Russian border and the potential huge money that may change lives of some of its inhabitants are of course important. Yet the real mastery lies in creating a seemingly ordinary world where unusual things happen, and through the prism of individual reactions, it makes this book not only a great suspenseful thriller but also a philosophical morality tale as well. This is a study of human nature mixed with intrigue, poignant musings and observations, in the location mentally equated with the actual harsh Siberia.

Judges’ statement on Little Siberia, as well as comments from the winning author, translator and publisher can be read on Raven Crime Reads’ pages.

Huldufólk, elves and trolls?

Refurinn / The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir

It‘s a snowy day in January when a small plane lands in a tiny town east of Vatnajökull glacier. Among the passengers is a young woman from Sri Lanka who thinks she‘s there to start a new life working at the local beauty parlour. Instead she finds herself working as a cleaner in an isolated country home beneath the looming mountains of the Eastfjords, whose jagged cliffs resemble razor blades. Her new employer is Selma, an elderly woman with a difficult past, and her son Ísak.

Detective Guðgeir Fransson is now working as a security guard in the village, after being temporarily suspended from his job at the Reykjavik Police Force pending an investigation into his alleged breach of discipline. He hears rumours in the village of the disappearance of a young foreign woman that arouse his interest and he decides to start his own investigation. It’s almost as if the woman never existed.

When Sajee Gunawardena left Colombo due to a difficult family situation and decided to travel across the world to join her sister in Reykjavik, she had no idea of the challenges that would meet her at each step of the way. New fairer life in Iceland did not materialise. All stereotypes about Asian women seemed to be thrown at her, and the fact that she had a cleft palate which caused difficulty when speaking Icelandic only encouraged some people to treat her as an uneducated simpleton. Yet Sajee, coming from a culture of respecting reincarnation and holy men, and with clear distinction between good and evil spirits, still wanted to better herself and hoped that Selma and Ísak will treat her with consideration. Her story offers one perspective in The Fox. The other comes from Guðgeir, who although demoted, disappointed with himself and feeling lonely in Höfn, takes Sajee’s peculiar situation seriously and embarks on an unofficial search for her. He appreciates beliefs in huldufólk or the hidden people but essentially he believes in another human being.

At Bröttuskriður Sajee takes it all in when her new employer Selma and the farm’s closest neighbours Karl and Marta try to explain something that often proves unexplainable, and depends on perception of reality, everyday life and own experience shaped by education or lack of it, poverty, location or family history. Each of them has a different approach to dealing with the spiritual world and the supernatural or mysterious concepts such as huldufólk.

According to Karl they ‘are people like you and me. Except that they’re taller, more dignified and in every way more handsome that we humans are. They dress in shades of blue and they live in the rocks. That’s not in every rock, but just in some places. But we don’t see them. At least, most of the time we don’t, because we humans have our limits in so many ways. Our senses are very poor unless they’re carefully trained. The hidden people are usually good, unless they’re mistreated. If you harm them in any way, they’re merciless in getting their own back. Karl dismisses the idea of elves who don’t seem to exist: They’re not elves, because that’s just rubbish. Trolls don’t belong in his landscape, either. Marta disagrees with her husband’s musings designed to frighten others: These are just old folk tales that people told in the dark before we had electricity. Back then people had to have ways of explaining things they didn’t understand.

Selma’s take is the most profound and primeval. As the story unravels it becomes clear that she considers that the hidden people to have a higher consciousness and can be both very cruel and without a shred of mercy. Sometimes they come to our aid when it’s needed, but if they’re wronged then their revenge can be bitter. Yet they aren’t spirits. This last aspect was inconceivable to Sajee being brought up in a tradition of reasonable gods and spirits: thoughts of the hidden people in the rocks above the farm came vividly to mind. Karl had talked about the elf woman who could drive people mad, or even make then disappear. Yesterday she had watched as Selma had hobbled up the largest of the rocks, taking with her a pot containing the remnants of a meat soup that she tipped out into the snow. Then she had spread her arms wide and yelled at the sky above. She was convinced that the old woman had been making an offering. She herself could never use a part of an animal as an offering, and any hidden people who took meat as a sacrifice had to be truly terrible.

Many tales of the hidden people demonstrate that they help people in trouble, and also can also make unpleasant people disappear into the rocks, and when doing an uncomfortable task, they leave behind a mark difficult to erase.

Various aspects of the ancient spirit world are strongly anchored in Icelandic tradition, and many artists and authors draw on these tales. Hidden people featured in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Shadow District and in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. In Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s Betrayal another side of the spirit world is at play, different from the Icelandic outlook yet equally important to the person who believes in it.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir combines elements of Nordic and Eastern culture and folklore, and places them in the contemporary reality of the contrast between native Icelanders and immigrants. She writes passionately and with verve, weaving fascinating strands of modern harsh realism and ethereal atmosphere into a captivating psychological portrait of individuals locked into isolation, trauma and mental health. Her passion for the main characters shines throughout the novel, with the titular chained fox representing not just physical shackles but restrains of the mind as well.

The Fox, brought to the English readers by the translator extraordinaire Quentin Bates and the brave new adventurous publisher Corylus Books, is for all those who are intrigued by the Icelandic mythology and history, and who enjoy exciting twisty tales, but most of all want to become familiar with Pálsdóttir’s writing. It is a rare gem.

Death Deserved

Death Deserved is the first instalment in the international bestselling award-winning Blix and Ramm novels penned by two crime fiction giants Jørn Lier Horst (The Katharina Code, When It Grows Dark, Ordeal in William Wisting series) and Thomas Enger (Cursed in Henning Juul series). When Nullpunkt (original title) hit the Norwegian market, the readers could not get enough of the unique concept, hard-boiled action, darkness of emotions and the well-rounded characters. Add to this mix a search for a serial killer with a flair for a drama and desire for attention in the public eye, and you have a book that captures your imagination, keeps you on the edge of the seat and makes you keep looking behind your back, and yet wanting more of the dark thrills.

Of course, you cannot have a superb novel travelling across the languages without an excellent translator who honed her literary craft over the years when working on some impressive writing. Anne Bruce translated works by Anne Holt, Heine Bakkeid, Wencke Mühleisen, Merethe Lindstrøm and Lier Horst himself. Her sense of individual styles and intuitive approach to the language ensure that the narration flows without any interruptions.

In this new book the authors poured their creativity into a story about fame and its consequences, and obsession that often follows a change of someone’s status in the society. A story that is as contemporary as the rapidly changing Norwegian society, and played out in various media.

First Sonja Nordstrøm, a former long-distance runner and an outspoken personality, failed to show up at the launch of her controversial autobiography Always Number One. When a celebrity blogger Emma Ramm found about this unusual event, unusual for someone seeking being present in the spotlight, she visited Sonja’s home and discovered signs of a struggle inside, together with a big with the number ‘one’ pinned to the TV. Both concerned about the possible abduction and excited about a sensational news scoop, she manages to persuade her boss to let her delve into a new type of journalism: crime reporting. Emma feels she can offer something more than just an extensive, yet not particularly ground-breaking knowledge of famous people, and it becomes clear that she is capable of writing brilliant material on the spot and of unearthing connections that might help in the search for the killer. But I am running ahead…

Her main contact is the police officer Alexander Blix, in charge of the investigation, and although very competent and experienced, he is still deeply affected by the aftermath of a hostage situation nineteen years earlier. He killed a father of a five-year-old girl and his career took a different turn compared to that of his colleague who was with him at the time. Gard Fosse easily climbed the managerial ladder within the police force while Blix continued to overlook some procedures to establish himself as the determined man in the field. As Blix navigates the working life and also becomes a mentor to a new recruit Sofia Kovic, he again does something quite unprofessional, as for certain unexplained reason he feels compelled to share bits of information with Emma, an outsider to the real police work. Complexity of the circumstances in which they both find themselves sends the whole process into dramatic pursuit to save lives.

With the main protagonists so conflicted and the murderer setting up own rules as to who dies and who is spared, which are very complicated yet logical to a unquestionably sick mind, Death Deserved moves at the neck-breaking speed as more people are discovered missing or dead, and the tension and fear expand in equal measures. Woven into the blend of red herrings and real threats are the quests of Blix’s daughter Iselin competing on the Worthy Winner TV programme. I recommend that you get into the spectre of the celebrity culture and the criminal vultures in a new reality created by Lier Horst and Enger.

The Girl with no Heart

A boot, a hat, a lost dog, a red herring

Travelling via books is one of life’s pleasures. Discovering new places is inspirational. Reading about locations that you might have visited is even more exciting. I was attracted by a brief write-up on the cover of Marit Reiersgaard’s The Girl with no Heart / Jenta uten hjerte, published originally in 2014 by Gyldendal, and nominated for the prestigious Riverton Prize, a literary award given annually to the best Norwegian crime story. I was interested in both the premise of the novel and the references to Tranby, a small town located east of Oslo. I am aware of the area yet I was not familiar with the Obelisk and its origins but now had a chance to find out more. Here in the novel the monument features both as a crime scene and a symbol of past and modern morality, touching on the conscience of people who have lived with various secrets in their lives, and made choices according to what influenced them most or had power over their emotions.

The story begins with two separate crimes happening in close distance one winter morning. A body of a fifteen-year-old murdered Idunn Olsen has been found in the snow near the large obelisk outside the quarry in Lier. Idunn was returning from a party where something has gone wrong as police received calls from people complaining about disturbances. Afterwards the young people who had attended the party were strangely reluctant to answer any questions and as the interviews brought little useful information the search for the killer does not seem to progress much. Close by another death was reported, of an elderly woman who was discovered in a house burned to the ground. There might have been connection between two crimes due to an unexpected appearance of a local man Agnar Eriksen who had spent time in prison for an attempted murder of his mother but now on his way to freedom.

Relationship between the main detectives Verner Jacobsen and Bitte Røed evolves as the story progresses, and it is fascinating to watch how they both deal with personal and family issues, and even the ‘office politics’. Nuanced and delicately balancing on the line of attraction and respect for each other, their rapport shines light on insights into wounded souls. Verner’s anxiety after having just lost his only son Victor to cancer has huge impact on his professional approach to interviewing a young suspect Fredrik Paulsen, and then Marte Skage, a girl deeply traumatised by continuous bullying. Not only Verner is affected by the recent events but also feels troubled by not really knowing Victor properly. A theft of a hearse with the coffin on the day of the funeral shifted his personal grief into the realms of challenging police work. On the other hand, Bitte’s different attitude and a fledgling romance with Marte’s father Kristian, a journalist and a second person of interest, places her in a difficult and ultimately dangerous situation.  

With genuine compassion the author deals with disturbing subjects of long-lasting effects of bullying and of abuse with sensitivity and understanding, not shying from some upsetting aspects which give enough context to internal turmoil experienced by those mostly affected. Cruelty seems to know no bounds, especially when it is hidden under the surface of politeness, ordinary activities, or fear of being exposed. Desperate acts of self-harm remain concealed beneath and trigger emotional blackmail. Close connections within the small community add interest and drama to the portrayal of various people who know or are aware of one another, and so the shocking finale would no doubt disturb many moral compasses.  

Paul Norlen’s translation suits the flow of the initial measured tempo and reflections on the widely understood meaning of life, until the pressure of the investigation grows and intensified emotions are getting closer to exploding. Reiersgaard’s elegant confident style comes across very well, with some phrases describing the mood instantly: ‘He knew that he had winter in his face and heavy bags under his eyes.’

Drammen. Ypsilon Bridge that Detective Verner Jacobsen crosses on the way to his work

The landscape plays an important role and Reiersgaard expertly maintains tension by describing the neighbourhood that she knows so well. The town of Tranby or the police station in nearby Drammen does not feature strongly in the Norwegian crime fiction that has been translated into English. Karin Fossum’s series about Inspector Konrad Sejer is set in the neighbourhoods around Oslo and in Drammen though I do not think that name is explicitly mentioned. As Marit Reiersgaard puts this place firmly on the map of crime-worthy locations in the contemporary literature, I would strongly recommend that you get to know the girl with no heart here and the other girls that become a focus of intriguing mysteries.

Valhalla: Legend of Thor

Synopsis: No man, woman or child may defy the gods. When Thor and Loki seek refuge in the home of mortals, the youngest son fails to heed a warning from the gods. As atonement for the family’s sins, the gods take the two youngest children under their wing and embark on an epic adventure from Midgard to Valhalla that will see them stare down ruthless giants, barbaric gods and the dreaded wolf Fenrir. 

Brand new Valhalla is directed by Fenar Ahmad, a Danish filmmaker of Iraqi origin, known for the excellent Darkland, a movie about a successful doctor who loses his little brother in a gang-related assault and then gives up his privileged life to become a masked warrior and avenge his brother’s death. In that role was Dar Salim, a familiar face to the fans of Borgen, The Bridge and Dicte: Crime Reporter. Here Ahmad moves from the modern-day issues happening in Denmark and takes on a classic Norse myth of Thor, the God of Thunder.

Two siblings Røskva, played by the incredible young actress Cecilia Loffredo, and her brother Tjalfe (Saxo Moltke-Leth) are taken by two gods Thor and Loki to Valhalla. The youngers know their fate as slaves is sealed but they do not expect how terribly they will be treated during the treacherous travel and when they finally arrive. Tjalfe feels unhappy and struggles silently, doing some pretty disgusting chores, yet he believes that the opportunity to serve gods comes once in a lifetime and only to the chosen few. Although loving her brother to the end of the world and back, literally, Røskva refuses to accept such bad treatment especially as the deities seem to have lost their godly respectable demeanour and engage in pointless name calling, drinking games and general boring unproductive time-wasting. Instead their conduct should be the guidance for the mortals and counterbalance for the Giants, the merciless barbarians, and that is exactly what the girl wants. So she finds her inner strength and challenges the powerful yet resigned Odin, and earns respect of Thor who reluctantly begins to admire her. Roland Møller’s thunderous personality as reckless Thor and his hammer-wielding abilities are to die for, and he becomes a fairly sensible god at the end of the emotional journey. Inspired by the Viking queen-in-the-making, the Valhalla goddesses, mostly silent, also spring into action to defend their empire together with two young mortals and against terrifying giants and the legendary Fenrir.

The intense and dangerous moments and the battle scenes, the visuals of darkness and otherworldly forces create a great atmosphere where you can lose yourself and experience a new brutal reality, based on the ancient rules and whims of supernatural powers. It is a very enjoyable fantasy as the story dips into the wealth of the Norse myths, with quite amazing special effects conveying the mood of fear and despair, and occasional wonder. The film is shot in Danish which adds to the mystery but of course English subtitles make the tale understandable. Just some advice before you venture into Valhalla: dancing with weirdly attractive Death is never a good idea, and watch out for the enormous majestic wolf, and the fish soup. The first one might scare you to untimely death but the second will definitely kill you.

All photos courtesy of Signature Entertainment.

Team Gunnhildur

‘You’re trying to be offensive.’

I don’t have to try. It comes naturally,’ Gunna told him. ‘Especially when people are economical with the truth.

Quentin Bates’ latest novel Cold Malice focuses on two strands: suicide of an enigmatic artist Áskell Hafberg, and the apparent drowning of his wife Birna five years earlier, and the under-the-radar return to Iceland of Ingvar Sturlaugsson, a man considered dead after the Thai tsunami of 2004. Reykjavík detective Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir is big on compassion and even bigger on justice. She is of the same school of investigation as Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur, and will turn every stone until she finds an answer or two to a case that bothers her.

Bates’ convincing plots, precise building up of the tension and effortless narration are mixed with dry sense of humour and in-depth knowledge of Iceland. His novels have contemporary feel with elements of history and understanding of the ways the society works. He has honed his style over the years, thanks to his vast experience as a writer, journalist, and co-founder of IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. As a translator he enabled the Icelandic authors such as Gudlaugur Arason, Indriði G. Thorsteinsson, Sigurjón Magnússon, Ragnar Jónasson and Lilja Sigurðardóttir to enter the worldwide English-speaking market.

I am absolutely delighted to share Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s reflections on Quentin Bates:

‘Quentin doesn’t eat the seared sheep´s head. In fact he makes a funny face while he watches his wife and myself gobble down this local delicacy with a nice helping of mashed potatoes and green beans. And that funny face reminds me that he isn’t an Icelander. In other situations I tend to forget because he is Icelandic in most other ways. That said, many Icelanders don´t eat the seared sheep´s head, especially not the younger ones that grew up with the options of eating food that is actually nice.

My books are translated into many languages so I know translators. I have worked with so many of them but Quentin is not your usual translator. He has never studied translation or Icelandic but relies solely on his natural talent, of which he has plenty. And because he is a writer himself, he knows his crime fiction in and out so his translations benefit from that. Because translating is not only about knowing a language and then re-writing a text into your own language, it is about culture. And that´s why I tend to forget that Quentin isn’t Icelandic. Because he not only knows the culture, he has lived it. Being a fisherman on the turbulent seas around Iceland, having family here, eating (some of) the strange food for years on end has shaped his character into being so much like these few strange people that inhabit this island.

There is a saying in Iceland:  Glöggt er gests augað (sharp is the guest´s eye) that means that guests sometimes see things that locals are not noticing anymore or take for granted. And that is the thing that makes Quentin so special: he is a local Icelander but at the same time he is also still a guest with a sharp eye that takes in things that an Icelander normally wouldn’t.

In his books about Gunna (detective Gunnhildur Gísladóttir) Quentin is at his best both as a local Icelander but also a sharp-eyed guest. Icelanders read those books and feel they are written by a local but English speakers would also find enough explanation of cultural and natural phenomena to enjoy the “Icelandicness” of the story.  I always look very much forward to a new book from Quentin and I won´t be able to wait until Cold Malice is published in Icelandic, I will have to read it first in English as soon as it´s out. Gunna is one of my favourite crime fiction characters and nobody that gets to know her will regret it.’

You can read further thoughts on Cold Malice via the following links:

Nordic Noir Blog

Cafe Thinking

The Book Trail

Novel Heights

Raven Crime Reads

Mrs. Peabody Investigates