If you’re a fan of Scandi-noir or intelligent, slightly off-beat, police procedurals this brace from Icelandic author Sólveig Pálsdóttir is for you. I had the chilling pleasure of reading The Fox and Silenced back to back and thoroughly enjoyed both.
First up The Fox. Strictly speaking this is the fourth in an ongoing series but it is the first to be translated into English and is a very good starting point. The characters are fully formed and there’s a lot of backstory to mine, which slips into this tale seamlessly, adding to the intrigue. The Fox introduces former chief inspector Gudgeir Fransson, now living in Höfn, a small town a day’s drive from the capital. He is now a security guard and he’s marking time. Gudgeir has been exiled, though not dismissed, from the Reykjavik police force and estranged from his wife and son, following an infidelity which had disastrous consequences, including the death of his service partner. Gudgeir hopes the separation from his wife is temporary but does Inga feel the same way?
Sajee is Sri Lankan, now living in Reykjavik, she speaks, but doesn’t write, Icelandic. Life in the city is not what she expected, she’s lonely, the atmosphere at work is poisonous. So Sajee accepts a job at a beauty salon in Höfn. The flight there is battered by turbulence, the only consolation, the kindness of the man next to her. Thormódor runs a guest house and gives her one of his business cards, just in case. Sajee waits at Höfn airport for her employer but no one arrives, the weather continues to close in and there are no taxis. When Sajee approaches Sveinn, who staffs the airport, he’s never heard of the people who offered Sajee the job and that’s strange because everyone knows everyone here. Sveinn drives Sajee into town, there is no beauty salon at the address she was given, she has no choice but to stay overnight at Thormódur’s guesthouse. It’s beginning to dawn on her that she’s been duped, the girls at the Reykjavik salon wanted rid of her to make way for another friend. Once Thormódor hears what happened he finds Sajee a job. An old woman, Selma, needs help with the house while her son, Ísak, runs their remote farm. Rather than admit defeat Sajee accepts. In a blizzard Thormódur’s drives Sajee to the farm. Selma is initially welcoming, but she and Ísak soon become distant and prone to mood swings. Sajee keeps her head down and tries hard not to worry about what’s going on in the cellar which they won’t let her near. Every time Sajee mentions wages they put her off. Occasional racist comments and stereotypes of immigrant people slip out, ‘no value in mixed wool’. Ísak keeps saying Sajee won’t be staying long, but won’t say what he means. The isolation is difficult for Sajee, this is so different from the community she grew up in, in Colombo and Selma is a capricious task master:
‘I’m not supposed to work at night.’
‘You are!’ Selma hissed angrily. ‘You work when we tell you to work. It’s in the contract. Now get on with it. I can’t do it.’
Sveinn’s family own the apartment Gudgeir rents, one day he causally mentions to the ex-detective the story of the woman who arrived for a job at a non-existent salon. Bored Gudgeir becomes interested in this strange little incident. It plays on us mind, eventually he will visit Thormódor. Where it all leads will surprise you.
The Fox is grimly atmospheric, the weather sets the mood, that’s a common trait in Scandinavian crime fiction, but Pálsdóttir does it exceptionally well. Her prose and story telling also induce a sense of uncertainty and foreboding. The fate of Sajee will play on your mind, as will cellar at the farm and to the tragedy that brought Gudgeir to Höfn in the first place. There’s a clever use of sleight of hand and misdirection in this story and ultimately it confounds expectations. As well as a satisfying mystery, Pálsdóttir writes strong believable and empathetic characters. We can understand a little of the immigrant experience, of Sajee’s good nature and her vulnerability. From toxic relationships, Selma and Ísak, to damaged ones, Gudgeir and Inga, there’s a lot in this tight, fast paced novel. I was very glad to be able to go straight into:
Silenced. Gudgeir is now back in Reykjavik, back with Inga and working hard on mending their relationship and forming a deeper bond with his young son, Pétur Andri. As he wasn’t dismissed, but on leave of absence from the job Gudgeir is back with the capital police department.
Andrea is a woman haunted by the past, and memories of her brother Jóhannes, long since disappeared. Her trauma manifests in surreal nightmares and a need for approval anywhere she can get it. She draws comfort from the likes when she posts a new photo on social media. Andrea is an influencer but influencers have a shelf life.
Gudgeir, Inga and Pétur Andri are moving in to a new apartment. Even though they reconciled the old house has too many memories. So Gudgeir is spending some time doing up the new place. He rings the door bell of the flat across the way to ask for a hammer to be greeted by Andrea. She invites him in, they chat, when she finds out he’s a policeman she suddenly asks why they close missing persons cases so quickly. Her brother Jóhannes went missing nearly two decades ago in June 2000, clearly it’s still a raw wound. It happened shortly after the family returned from Australia. Jóhannes was camping with two friends, when they returned from a trip to town one night he was gone. The weather was bad, it was assumed Jóhannes fell into a crevasse or was washed out to sea by the river. Gudgeir tries to fob her off, it’s sad but not something he can do anything about, he leaves with the hammer.
Gudgeir’s first case is a death at Hólmsheidi prison. Kristín Kjarr was coming to the end of a six months sentence for a drink driving offence, after crashing into a house. The evidence seems to point to suicide, although that make little sense for someone about to be released. The autopsy will not be a priority and the results could take months to come back. But Gudgeir remembers Kristín from a connection to Sajee’s case. As he searches the cell he recognises a painting in the dead woman’s cell, he’s only just recently seen a photo of the same man on Andrea’s wall. It’s her younger brother Dada. It’s not long before Jóhannes disappearance and the investigation into Kristín’s case overlap. As Gudgeir digs around it’s not long before a past tragedies haunt the present.
Silenced is a satisfying complex and intriguing mystery and Pálsdóttir is a worthy addition to the list of outstanding Icelandic authors who add fizz to European crime fiction. Both novels are superbly translated by Quentin Bates.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Corylus Press, paperback/eBook, out now
The Fox ISBN e/book
Silenced ISBN 9781916379732