Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates
Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates (Soho Press, 2013) is the third novel featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir (plus the e-book Winterlude which bridges between Cold Comfort and this book). For some time, there’s been growing interest in what, for want of anything better to label it, the reading public calls Scandinavian crime. Of course, from the time of the Vikings onwards, Scandinavians have been into the commission of a range of crimes and have celebrated their successes in sagas and crime novels — some of which have proved very popular. It’s therefore something of a coals-to-Newcastle irony to find a British author turning his hand to a police procedural series set in Iceland. He’s jumping on the bandwagon while it’s travelling past him at a fair speed. Not that I blame him. If an author sees a market niche ripe for exploitation, why not aim for it? Anyway, we’re into Iceland which has not received much attention from the fictioneers since Beowulf put it on the map. Of late, it’s proved to be an exciting place to be what with cod wars and the more recent piratical, i.e. Norse, behaviour of its banking system. Now recovering from the financial crisis following the banking collapse in 2008, it remains politically stable but, as this novel demonstrates, it continues to be secretive at the higher levels of society.
We tiptoe into action as one of the exclusive hotels in Reykjavík, where discretion is a byword, quietly calls in the police to report the death of an elderly shipowner. He expired while tied to a bed — such are the risks when older men with weak hearts submit to discipline. At first sight, there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly suspicious about the death, ignoring the local vice laws, of course. But, as is always the case when starting off on a police procedural, there’s more to discover. The narrative depends on multiple points of view, the most important of which are: the good Sergeant who leads the investigation, Hekla, the less-than-honest dominatrix, Joel Ingi Bragason, the civil servant who has an urgent need to find a missing laptop, and Baddo the (involuntarily) returning criminal. Although by some people’s moral standards, the inclusion of an S&M theme may be less than acceptable, we’re soon into the safer waters of murders. Better still, instead of the more usual deadpan melancholy which the Scandinavian writers bring to their own books, this actually has a faint sense of humour — not in the laugh-out-loud sense, you understand — but enough to raise the occasional smile. If it was accurately translated into the various Scandinavian languages, they would probably consider the book an outrageous comedy, but we southerners, being of a more dour nature, can accept an appropriate remark or wry observation without losing perspective on the more serious implications of a murder or two, and S&M shenanagins.
Adding to the excitement, Gunna’s son, Gisli, has managed to fertilise two young women. At this point, with neither woman aware of the other, he leaves on his trawler, tasking his mother to consider how best to resolve this socially awkward situation. Prospective grandmothers have a tough life in the far North. Apart from this dual pregnancy, the good sergeant’s family life is reassuringly normal. Indeed, one of the reasons why the case takes slightly longer to resolve is because the police officers mostly go home at the end of their shifts. Although there’s some money made available later in the investigation to pay overtime, the police are not completely obsessed — no Wallanders here. In establishing priorities, some aspects of the work can always wait until the next day. In part, this reflects a society which is relatively low crime. This does not deny the sergeant has a reasonably long to-do list. But, in her defence, the failure of those in positions of power to pass over a full brief relegates their work down the list. Until the significance of the missing laptop becomes apparent, that is. Then everyone in the game gets to reassess where they stand and what needs to be done.
Chilled to the Bone is an excellent novel. The elements of the crimes in motion are nicely laid out through the different points of view. The dominatrix proves to be sympathetic albeit of a very practical turn of mind. Even Baddo, the appropriately named villain of the piece, is given a completely fair run. He may be murderously efficient, but we can all understand his approach to life. The man emerging with the least sympathy is the civil servant who allowed the laptop to be exposed to the risk of loss. The outcome for him is all too credible. This leaves me impressed. The book flirts with Scandinavian darkness, something that’s built into the psyche of books like this, if only because of the enduring cold during winter, but manages to emerge on a steady and fairly positive note (the British influence showing through).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.