Remember Snare, Trap and Cage? (2017-19, Orenda Books). Like any self respecting fan of Scandi-noir I was taken with Sigardardottir’s superb trilogy which began with an ordinary mother getting caught up in the world of drug smuggling and became an epic tale of human frailty and courage, criminal instincts and better angels. The powerful triptych told a universal story infused with rich Icelandic tones; claustrophobic and darkly chilling but also compassionate and hopeful.
Betrayal is a one off thriller set in Iceland’s political arena; the issues are again universal but politics is done differently in the island and that allows Sigardardottir to bring us a unique take on familiar skulduggery. She is interested in ordinary people and how they become entangled in corruption and crime and whether their integrity can survive the seductive trappings of power and compromise here. Úrsúla is an outsider to the political game; she is offered the job of Minister of the Interior, a curious melding of Justice and Transport, (nothing happens without a reason). Úrsúla’s background is in aid work abroad, her last assignment in Liberia facing ebola took its toll but she has that clean image the PM needs. This induction of an ingénue into the political arena could have happened anywhere in the world but to get to the heart of government would have to happen over a longer, slower, period. The system in Iceland allows the PM to appoint a minister from outside parliament without ceremony and rigmarole and so that means that Betrayal can skip a few beats, retain Úrsúla’s naivety and lack of cynicism, and get to the trouble forthwith. Consequently this story is fast paced, aided by the tight timeframe, it’s set over a few days, and the strands of the story are perfectly weighted so that the complexity and the reveals have a sense of balance and clarity. The denouement is poetic.
Úrsúla Aradóttir is a little lost, her relationship with Nonni is rocky, she needs a direction, more purpose in her life. So when the PM offers her the job of Minister of the Interior she accepts. On that first day she makes a promise to a mother of a fifteen year old girl raped by a police officer in Selfoss to find out what is going on with the investigation. No one else seems willing to help and the child is now a prisoner in her own home. How could Úrsúla refuse to help? As she tries to follow up vital information has gone missing, if anything staff are obstructing her attempts to find out what is happening in the case.
A homeless man sees a photo of Úrsúla accepting her new job, he remembers the child, they are connected, he asks himself why she is shaking hands with the devil? He has to warn her. Meanwhile Úrsúla meets with permanent secretary, Odinn, she turns down the ministerial car in favour of her old Toyota, that has consequences. The friendliest face she meets is Stella, one of the cleaners, they share crafty fags outside the building. She’s soon into policy matters and meetings, the heavy workload. There’s one priority for the PM, the much vaunted South Coast Highway has hit a snag and the problem has just become Úrsúla’s to handle. Of course, Úrsúla won’t let the assault case in Selfoss go without answers. Soon the press are picking up stories about Úrsula and she’s receiving vicious emails, threatening, calling her a femi-nazi and worse.
Úrsúla has more drive than at any time since she returned from Liberia but she is going to need stamina and nous as conspiracy and dirty dealing threaten to engulf her. Several stories blend well in this dark political thriller, they say it’s a dirty business, it is, this is a cesspit. Political cynicism and police corruption are underpinned by deep rooted misogyny. Betrayal has a well crafted plot, it’s an intriguing mystery with a credible and brave but flawed protagonist at its heart. Betrayal is tough, gritty and tense, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Review by Paul Burke
Group read: 4*
Betrayal by Lilja Sigardardottir
Translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books, paperback, ISBN 9791914193409, Out Now.