When wealthy doctor Ríkharður Magnússon goes to sleep in his luxurious caravan and doesn’t wake up, detectives Guðgeir Fransson and Elsa Guðrún are called to the Westman Islands to investigate what looks like murder. Suspicion immediately falls on Ríkharður’s young, beautiful and deeply troubled girlfriend – but there are no easy answers in this case as they are drawn into family feuds, disgruntled friends and colleagues, and the presence of a group of fitness-obsessed over-achievers with secrets of their own.
As their investigation makes progress, Guðgeir and Elsa Guðrún are forced to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices as they uncover the sinister side of Ríkharður’s past.
Iceland is such a small stunning country, with magnificent out-of-this world landscapes, inspiration and creativity flowing from the nature and presenting themselves in unique art and culture, the society based on equality and with the perception that everyone is fairly happy and satisfied. And of course all that is and can be true. Yet as we have already gleaned over the years from the literature and the films, the glossy surface of any environment often hides secrets, big and small, shocking or embarrassing, personal trauma or issues that nobody really wants to talk about. In Harm / Skaði, published in October 2021 in Iceland, and the third novel from Sólveig Pálsdóttir now available in English in Quentin Bates’ superb translation, these perceptions and stereotypes are examined sensitively and in detail.
Pálsdóttir’s calm unhurried trademark style flows throughout her writing. However, it does not mean that it impacts pace or narration. Instead, the right tempo, combined with the insights into psychology of individuals and groups creates an absorbing intriguing literary journey into past and present of complicated personal and familial relationships. She takes an incident or an event that must be resolved by the police and analyses it on all levels, as it reverberates in various circles of affected people. Her main protagonist detective Guðgeir Fransson oversees the investigation into the suspicious death of a wealthy confident doctor, fifty-two-year-old Ríkharður who was found dead in his luxurious caravan at the camp site on a beautiful island. His two decades younger girlfriend Diljá Sigurðardóttir becomes an obvious and typically a logical suspect: she fled from the scene and her personal history indicates serious mental health issues. Here the first red flag appears: immediately everybody is convinced that the young woman had murdered her much older partner. Guðgeir and his colleague informally question four close friends who were on holidays with the pair: two couples who are health and wellness fanatics, sure of own physical prowess and way to live their lives. Although shocked by death, Ingi Thór and Eygló, plus Ásmundur and Katrín, don’t appear to be very concerned as Ríkharður was a new member of this established group, had different interests, and drank too much anyway. Guðgeir takes everything into account, consults with his superior Særós, and thinks. And that he does to perfection. Facts, evidence, statements, reactions are important as they form the basis of exhaustive investigation. Open mind and compassion provide extra layer to the process. Diljá’s past included many problems that affected her mental state and self-confidence, and relationship with her daughter Maríu Líf, leading to losing trust in people in position of authority. Her friends have seemingly sorted lives yet are drawn to the alternative rituals to assist them in dealing with complex personal issues: ‘people genuinely believe that they are in touch with some higher power and that they are cleaning up their lives.’ But the evident order in life or wealth-induced respect don’t guarantee contentment: ‘They were all searching for something on a spiritual level, and all of them either had a difficult youth or had suffered a trauma of some kind, or both.’ By linking current grim reality of murder in Westman Islands of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago and the South American spiritual fantasy of ayahuasca experience, the author weaves a complicated but vital thread to understand what really matters.
Pálsdóttir’s earlier novels in English translation are The Fox and Silenced. All three show another side to the Icelandic society, and an affable rational and sympathetic detective who is not afraid to query his own ways of thinking, and the ingrained opinions that he might have acquired over the years. Through that prism the author makes us also stop and reflect for a moment on how we see others. Guðgeir might not be in the mavericks’ police league but as an astute human being he is best placed to support his family, colleagues and any victims of crime. And that’s we need in the turbulent times.
Harm was published on 27th August by Corylus Books.
Sólveig Pálsdóttir trained as an actor and has a background in the theatre, television and radio. In a second career she studied for degrees in literature and education, and has taught literature and linguistics, drama and public speaking. She has also produced both radio programming and managed cultural events. Her first novel appeared in Iceland in 2012 and went straight to the country’s bestseller list. She has written six novels with Reykjavík detective Guðgeir Fransson as the central character, and a memoir Klettaborgin which was a 2020 hit in Iceland. Silenced / Fjötrar received the 2020 Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic novel of the year and was Iceland’s nomination for the 2021 Glass key award for the best Nordic crime novel of the year. She took part in several crime fiction and literary festivals such as Bristol’s CrimeFest, Newcastle Noir, Aberdeen’s Granite Noir and Iceland Noir. Sólveig lives in Reykjavík.
Quentin Bates has professional and personal roots in Iceland that run very deep. He worked as a seaman before turning to maritime journalism. He is an author of series of nine crime novels and novellas featuring the Reykjavik detective featuring Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir. In addition to writing his own fiction, he has translated books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, Óskar Guðmundsson and Ragnar Jónasson. Quentin was instrumental in establishing Reykjavík’s crime fiction festival Iceland Noir.
I’m delighted to share my thoughts at the start of the blog tour for Harm. Please follow the other bloggers, and enjoy the third novel in the Ice and Crime series by Sólveig Pálsdóttir.