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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

Soho Crime, 320 pages, $26.95

Iceland isn’t so much ice as land. People writing about Reykjavík must get tired pointing out that their yearly winter snow, rain, and temperatures resemble the climate of Portland, Oregon, more than the North Pole. No worries, in both places all that weather can lend quite a bit of dreary atmosphere to a murder mystery.

Gunnhildur Gisladóttir, nicknamed Gunna, is the series heroine. She was the police officer in a small village, but her perspicacity won her a spot in the big city. Chilled to the Bone is the third in the chilling series penned by British author Quentin Bates. This time Gunna has to deal with the body of a man found dead in a compromising position in a hotel. Who was the mysterious woman with whom he was last seen? Did she kill him?

There are four main characters that Quentin Bates tails in his book: Gunna; Bigfoot Baddó, a bad guy just released from a Lithuanian prison who is doing a “job” for another suspicious character; Jóel Ingi Bragason, a low level government minister’s assistant; and Hekla, the dominatrix who scams her customers. Now you know that sooner or later the stories will intersect, but in the meantime, confusion reigns. There aren’t any chapters to speak of. The breaks are fairly frequent and it’s not always immediately obvious whose storyline is now being worked over. Sometimes it’s necessary to backtrack after the character becomes apparent. Then there’s actually a fifth character with a minor storyline: an unnamed woman shadowing one of the other characters. At one point I think there was a sentence in which both Gunna and the mysterious woman appear, and the “she” references were confusing.

I have fallen for both of the other Icelandic storytellers I’ve read so far: Arnaldur Indridasson and Yrsa Sigurdadóttir. The Icelandic landscape is bleak and should inspire books that are bleak and dramatic as well. This book wasn’t quite all that, but I did like the character of Gunna. She was a regular person with a (mostly) regular family with a couple of soap-opera type problems. I also liked criminally-inclined Hekla, who was a sympathetic character.

I’m sorry that I started with the third book in the series, because there’s almost no catch-up on the police characters, even though Bates does eventually accord them some description. In most cases, however, the reader is flying blind for a while. It’s not rocket science, so the gist of the story is apparent.

What Bates does well is present an authentic-sounding look at Reykjavík’s culture. He lived there for a number of years, speaks Icelandic, and has read and appreciated Icelandic authors. That has certainly worked in his favor.

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