The Wednesday Club

Recently I have reread Kjell Westö’s impressive insightful book that made a huge impression on me. My review was originally on Crime Review pages, and I strongly believe the English edition of The Wednesday Club, published by MacLehose Press in May 2016, deserves much more attention.

The Finnish Civil War, lasting under four months in 1918, remains one of the most emotionally charged events in history of Finland. The Swedish middle and upper classes (the Whites), inclined to support Germany, fought against the Finnish proletariat (the Reds), supported by the Russian Bolshevik regime. The events of the past have bitterly divided the country after the WWI and affect the characters in the novel.

The titular Wednesday Club was founded in the autumn of ’27 by the lawyer Claes Thune and his five friends ‘to contribute to the maintenance and exploration of political and cultural conversation in the Swedish language in the city of Helsinki’. The monthly meetings became an exclusive gentlemen’s club, an opportunity to talk and drink, enjoy fine food and debate various topics, such as hatred towards real and imagined enemies, and the unconditional love for a mythical, feminised mother country: the Finnish Maiden or the Mother Russia. Yet as the political situation in Europe escalated in 1938 a darker cloud hovered above the men, two liberals and four of the right-wing persuasion. Always eager to voice their political alliances and feeling comfortable in their knowledge and confidence that their position is safe, they are disturbed by the world’s events. Hitler’s expansion causes both anger and admiration. Mussolini is the talk of the rich classes. Attitudes towards other nations worsen, and that change is aimed at Jews, Finns and various other ethnic groups in Finland.

Claes Thune, recently divorced and feeling lost, is running his law practice without much enthusiasm, while re-evaluating his life. Always lacking courage, ‘his specialities were analysis and reflection’ in an age ‘that demanded unthinking courage from absolutely everyone’. Broad-mindedness was like oxygen to him, and the lack of it cut short his career as a diplomat at the embassies in Stockholm and Moscow. His ex-wife Gabi, now living with his best friend, also the Club’s member, had her erotic stories published which of course had upset the existing state of affairs.

Into this established status quo enters his new secretary Mrs Matilda Wiik from a working-class background. Mrs Wiik carries constant guilt that years ago she was unable to protect her younger brother Konni, a talented musician and band leader, now emotionally damaged and prone to violent outbursts. More heart-rending are the repressed memories of her time as a prisoner. But she is efficient, impeccable, reserved and cautious; and her curt precise way of speaking hides loneliness. Thune is aware of the undercurrent of strong emotions but divided by their social positions he never invites such confidences. However, a subtle respectful professional friendship develops between these two lonely people.

Then one day Mrs Wiik hears a voice that she hoped never to hear again, of her tormentor twenty years ago when she was barely seventeen, taken from the street to the starvation camp. Her ‘crimes’ were her mother’s Russian heritage and her father’s apparent communist sympathies.  Still traumatised by the repeated silent rapes, inflicted by the ‘Captain’, camp’s official, she is shaken when she encounters him at the Wednesday Club meeting at Thune’s office. The anonymous Captains is drawn to her. But this time Matilda Wiik does not want to be a powerless victim. Her absence at work sometime later starts to trouble Claes Thune.

Kjell Westö, one of the leading Swedish-language writers in Finland, is definitely in Thomas Mann’s league and I would absolutely recommend his fine thoughtful work in Neil Smith’s fabulous sensitive translation. Hägring 38, the original title of The Wednesday Club, means ‘mirage’ and as such it reflects the historical situation in Finland, the social attitudes and unrealistic dream of calm. Part historical novel, part crime mystery with elegant, measured prose, sophisticated language, and truly contemporary feel though the events are firmly based in the turbulent past, this is a book to be savoured and treasured, to be read slowly as the universal truths sink in.

(c) Author’s website

Kjell Westö is a Finnish author and journalist who writes in Swedish, best known for his epic novels set in Helsinki. He has also written short stories, poetry, essays and newspaper columns. He received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2014 for Hägring 38 which was then adapted for stage by Mikaela Hasan and Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasan, and had its Finnish-language premiere at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki in September 2017. More information about the author can be found here: https://kjellwesto.com/en/

Faroese Trilogy

(c) Visit Faroe Islands https://www.visitfaroeislands.com

We are not that familiar with Faroes, a self-governing archipelago, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, comprising eighteen rocky, volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway. And neither is the British murder squad detective Jan Reyna, the main protagonist of Chris Ould’s Faroese Trilogy. He left the stunning but harsh terrain with his mother Lydia when he was three, first going to Denmark, then to England. He refused to speak the language, sure he would never return. We first meet him in The Blood Strand (2016): he is compelled to go back when told that his estranged old father Signar Ravnsfjall was found unconscious in a car, with a shotgun by his side. The police found traces of someone else’s blood at the scene, and then a young man’s body was washed up on an isolated beach. Reyna gets gradually pulled into the case by the local detective Hjalti Hentze with whom he finds a common language. Both men work in similar way and so their mutual respect grows as Reyna also slowly starts understanding there is something innately conservative about Faroese people with their polite respect for privacy.

Reyna is drawn back to the bleak but fascinating landscape which reflects his own mood, the black dog of depression that he tries to fight. He reluctantly wants to learn about his family, the reasons behind his mother’s flight from the Faroes, and her subsequent suicide. He needs to deal with his anger, resentment and sadness of unfinished business with Signar; meets his half-brothers, and rekindles friendship with cousin Frida. He discovers the way local people live on these magnificent, remote islands and how this heritage might have affected his personality. Mainly Reyna is trying to come to terms with his own history and decide where he belongs.

In the next book The Killing Bay (2017) a group of international activists from the Atlantic Wildlife Conservation Alliance (AWCA) arrive on the Faroe Islands to shame the locals and to stop the traditional whale hunts, called grind. The main protestors voice their opinions to the entire world. Tensions run high even before the bloody event takes place in the waters by the beach. Among the protesters the photographer Erla Siversten seems quite sensible and objective. Later it becomes clear that she understood the meaning of grind, being a Faroese herself. Hours after the violent confrontation a woman’s body was found away from the port and the actual place where the enormous mammals had been slaughtered. The victim has been viciously attacked and left exposed near the building with the freshly painted slogan ‘F… the Whales’ which could only suggest the aftermath of the protests.

As Hjalti Hentze investigates the circumstances surrounding murder of the victim who turned out to be Erla, he soon loses his trademark calm and becomes more anxious when some evidence is found in the boat shed belonging to his son-in-law. Things seem to be getting personal. Jan Reyna remains mostly in the background, preoccupied with searching for his Faroese roots, concerned that depression is taking hold of him again, as he awaits his professional fate, suspended from work.

The final book in the trilogy The Fire Pit (2018) focuses on the apparent suicide of the unsociable alcoholic Boas Justesen, and the discovery of skeleton of a young woman on a windswept hillside. Hentze suspected it was a body of a Norwegian woman reported missing forty years earlier who together with her young daughter Else vanished from a hippy colony at hamlet of Múli. It was ran by a Danish man Rasmus Matzen, on the land owned by Justen, regular visitor to the commune. The Danish hippies had wanted to establish themselves far away from the constraints of formal society. But tough living conditions, inhospitable land and weather, and suspicious locals made the survival of the colony impossible in the long term. On top of that the idealistic notions seemed to hide some repulsive behaviours.

In Denmark Jan Reyna continues a private search into his mother’s suicide in 1976. Disillusioned with his job, he takes a drastic action to plunge into painful memories of others, mostly. He discovers own history, as well as devasting effects of the abuse of young women spanning four decades, and conspiracy of murder.

The old policeman’s maxim: never pass up the chance for the toilet, a coffee or something to eat’

Hjalti Hentze

The novels are beautifully written, tense and a touch melancholic, atmospheric and full of delicate mysteries that keep you guessing about Reyna’s life and wondering at how different background and traditions shaped his character. Chris Ould has full control over the tight interesting plots and main characters who had developed throughout the entire trilogy. Especially Reyna and Hentze work brilliantly as partners and as individuals, each using own skills and professional judgment to search for the truth, and bouncing off ideas. Hetze’s down-to-earth stoicism and determination make a welcoming change from a truly depressive cop.

Each book can be read as a standalone, dealing with individual investigation. However, it would be more satisfying and thought-provoking to read them in order. Chris Ould thoroughly researched the islands’ geography and history but his vast knowledge and deep passion are pared down to use only the vital snippets of information to move the stories along. The locations, both Danish and Faroese, are vivid and tangible, bringing real authenticity to the narration and truly fascinating background.

Reviews were originally published on Crime Review pages.

Norwegian Wood

Raise your axe if you ever wanted to be a Scandinavian lumberjack. Not necessarily on a grand scale like some loggers featured in crime fiction books: deafening noise, tractors, heavy duty machinery, cutting a way through a dense ancient forest. Like in Will Dean’s Black River set in Sweden. More as a small project, or a way of life, to have enough wood for the winter, enjoying the process of getting your own resources, enjoying physical tiredness and mental peace. Feeling ready for the months of freezing cold, deep snow, dark nights AND warm cosy evenings in front of the fire.

Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood in Robert Fergusson’s translation published in 2015 was a huge hit. It dealt with the practical and mythical aspects of wood. I asked Santa for a copy of the book, and yes, I received it under a Christmas tree. Since then, MacLehose Press also published two incredible novels by Mytting: The Sixteen Trees of The Somme, and The Bell in The Lake which I’m currently reading.

Some time ago I had a chance to do some woodwork AKA hard work, after three pine trees had been felled down by a professional guy, all health and safety measure in place. Splitting logs and then stacking the smaller pieces on the pallets so they could dry for the next winter as the wind flows between them. It was nothing as meditative as axe-wielding and chopping newly fallen trees. The result was maybe less impressive than beautifully stacked logs created by real masters. Yet, the growing pile of logs of various shapes but of the same length of about 30cm, seemed magnificent. And very reassuring in a strange quiet way. Now the fresh wood is covered under a layer of fresh snow.

Have a look at some photos. As I was putting big logs into the cleaving machine (I am sure there’s a proper term for it) they were shooting off in two directions. The power of the blunt blade was enormous. Luckily, no damage was done to fingers, or toes for that matter, when halves of the heavy logs kept bouncing off the machine and then falling on the ground or the trailer supporting the whole operation. I feel proud of my new skill, and thrilled to see the history in the cut wood, the patterns grown from their past, the sparkles of frost, and the memory of trapped scent of the forest. Without a doubt it has been a calming experience.

You can buy the book via the following link: Norwegian Wood – MacLehosepress.com

The Inner Darkness

Years of experience in the field and unquestionable talent made Jørn Lier Horst one of the most successful crime writers in Scandinavia. He has built his writing career on consistent police procedurals, intriguing stories, well-drawn characters, and a unique Nordic feel. Intelligent and engaging plots offer realistic insight into the work of both Norwegian police and press, and small details invite readers into the contemporary Norwegian world. In his latest novel The Inner Darkness / Illvilje third of the Cold Case Quartet, Lier Horst places Chief Inspector William Wisting in a really uncomfortable position and sends him on a journey of ambiguity.


Serial killer Tom Kerr has already spent years in prison for horrendous murders of two women but suddenly he’s ready to talk, to confess to another killing and show the burial place of his third victim whose body has never been found. The site visit has been meticulously arranged by the Oslo unit led by Adrian Stiller, specialising in cold cases; dedicated yet somewhat following own agenda. On the day the man is chained and handcuffed, and dogs and policemen with guns are present. Selected people have been allowed to participate, amongst them Wisting, as this takes place in the district he’s responsible, and his daughter Line in her capacity as an investigative journalist filming the proceedings for a documentary. Unfortunately, Kerr manages to trick everyone: trip over a wire resulting in a grenade explosion injuring several policemen, and to escape. It becomes obvious that he wouldn’t have been able to do that without outside help. As his lawyer, quite a provocative Claes Thancke seems in the dark, the police focus on finding not only the prisoner who outwitted them but his accomplice as well. The aptly named the Other One was considered in earlier investigations yet never found. Yet everything point to him as this was the only way to explain how this whole embarrassing and dangerous event had happened.

Wisting gets the blame and his decisions and handling of the situation is promptly referred to the Internal Affairs, facing yet again his nemesis Terje Nordbo, and feeling both frustrated and angry but not resigned to sitting quiet at home while the massive manhunt goes on. His team continue the search, bouncing off ideas, digging through the old documents, following various connections and getting closer to find answers, and hopefully two ruthless sadists.

Line’s connection in the case goes through various ups and downs. As a civilian she is not supposed to be so involved in the investigation nor to follow her own instincts and often stumbling into dangerous situations. Yet her reporting skills, plus a nose for an interesting story makes her question all details not available during the search. This constant battle of wills between a need to know and share information to the public against duty of confidentiality adds tension not only to the plot but also to the relationship with her father and some of his team members. I wonder how their rapport will be developing further, with Wisting retiring one day (hopefully not yet!) and her own professional career precariously based on the criminal events near home. Often too close to home.

The graphic descriptions of sexual violence were difficult to digest but understandably they were used as a device to analyse the notions of good and evil. Of course, this exploration is as old as the world itself, and the crime fiction would not exist without these two opposites. In the context of the modern civilised Norwegian society, it still terrifies: ‘Evil is the inner darkness. An urge to inflict pain on other human beings.’

Strong characterisation and well-constructed story make The Inner Darkness an interesting, thoughtful and fascinating read. Anne Bruce’s translation is superb as always, as over the course of several books she became so familiar with the author’s engaging style, alert to any nuances or changes in tempo of narration.

I reviewed the previous books in the new series, The Katharina Code and The Cabin, on the pages of Crime Review.  

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.