This is the third title in the author’s Reykjavik Noir series and I have a confession to make: When invited to review the title I had not read the previous two titles in the series (despite having them on my Kindle) and so I quickly read all three back to back. I toyed with the idea of writing an individual review for each title, but in the end, I have opted to just write the one review, which while focusing primarily on Cage, is really a review of the trilogy as a whole. If this sounds a little lazy of me, it’s not, because while with some series individual books can be read as standalones, the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, in my opinion, can’t. I really would suggest reading them as a series, and reading them in order, as the structure of the books and the character development will really only make sense to the reader if they’ve read the previous titles.
There are two main characters in the series, Sonja and Agla. Sonja begins the series in the first book, Snare, as a drug mule, having been tricked into it by a dodgy lawyer after a messy divorce. Her lover, Agla, is a banker, a “bankster” accused of manipulating the market prior to the financial crash. By book three, Cage, Sonja has risen to the top of the Icelandic drug trade, while Agla is in prison serving a short sentence for financial crimes. But Agla has fingers in many pies and is always making huge sums of money from one scam or another.
Each book introduces a colourful cast of supporting characters, many of whom are recurring, and also contains a strong subplot which supports the main arc that spans all three books. In Cage, the two subplots are a scam to make money out of the world’s aluminium supply (if that sounds dull, don’t worry, it’s much more gripping than it sounds) and two teenagers building a bomb (to blow up what is revealed at the end).
These books are noir in the truest sense of the word, meaning that none of the characters are particularly likeable or sympathetic. A cliché said about writing is that a protagonist has to be likeable, that the reader needs someone they can relate to. But true noir often eschews this. One of the most famous examples is James Elroy’s novel White Jazz, the protagonist of which, a character named Dave Klein, is, in turn, a lawyer, bagman, slum landlord and mafia killer who’s also in an incestuous relationship with his sister! Somehow Elroy, one of the best writers of noir, makes this work. While the reader never comes to like Klein particularly, they can’t help but root for him.
The Reykjavik Noir series is very much of this mould. None of the characters are particularly likeable, in fact, I would go as far as to say that they’re all pretty despicable (just like Klein, the character in the Elroy novel). An example, the first title, Snare, begins with Sonja smuggling drugs through an airport. To do this, she surreptitiously switches her luggage with that of another, wholly innocent woman (she buys an identical case in duty-free). Only when the other woman has successfully passed through customs does she approach her to admit her “mistake” and swap the luggage back again. Now think about that: if the other woman had been caught, her life would be destroyed, as she would be convicted and possibly imprisoned for drug smuggling. And yet Sonja is one of the main characters, a person we’re supposed to root for. Agla, the bankster, is even worse, the epitome of an amoral banker. Neither is there any let-up as the series progresses, throughout book two, Trap, and book three, Cage, the characters continue to profit from their criminality and unethical behaviour.
But does it work as a trilogy? Well, yes, it does. Just as James Elroy pulled this trick off with White Jazz, which is seen as one of the classics of the genre and rated by his fans as one of his finest works, Lilja Sigurdardottir pulls it off with her series of novels. One just can’t help but root for Sonja and Agla, despite their despicable flaws. As a fan of noir, I really enjoyed these novels and grudgingly cheered for Sonja and Agla all the way. The author does a great job of telling their stories and these books are real classics of the noir genre. So if like me, you like books that are a bit more challenging than the average read where the protagonists are completely loveable and likeable, then the Reykjavik Noir series might very well be for you.
James Pierson 4/4
Cage by Lilja Sigurdardottir
Orenda Books 9781912374496 pbk Oct 2019