An engaging blend of blackmail, sexual mischief, coldly calculated murder and a solid police procedural, this Icelandic investigation combines a well-woven plot with a cast of intriguing characters. Sergeant Gunnhildur, the resolutely down-to-earth pragmatist, is the anchor around whom the storyline revolves, and she’s currently one of the most interesting female investigators in crime fiction.
That’s partly because of all the things she’s not: not traumatised by childhood events, not heaving-bosom hysterical, not prone to wearing high heels in snowstorms, not driven by insatiable sexual proclivities, not at war with her superiors, not saddled with a must-prove-myself inferiority complex. Instead, she is capable, competent and credible. Exactly the kind of police officer you’d hope would head up an investigation into how a businessman got himself dead while wearing a ball-gag, bound to a high-class hotel bed.
Gunna however, doesn’t hog the limelight. She’s frequently in the wings, while the entertaining supporting cast take centre stage. There’s the part-time dominatrix who’s turned a hobby into a profitable sideline to help support her family. A dipwit narcissist civil servant who’ll do almost anything to recover his missing laptop and the sensitive info it contains. His bullying boss, driven by terror of political humiliation. Best of all is Baddo, a time-served ex-con who’s been banged up abroad and has every reason to steer clear of coming home, but reluctantly returns to Iceland.
Baddo is acres more interesting than your average rent-a-thug, a brooding, intelligent and effective menace who plainly has an interesting past – and who makes faster progress with his illegitimate investigation than the police do with their attempts. He’s easily the most magnetic character in the book, not least because author Quentin Bates keeps him in the shadows for the most part, only revealing his story a sliver at a time.
Amid the chilly slither of slushy ice, Bates also conveys quiet moments of social commentary in non-judgmental fashion; from multiple teenage pregnancies to middle-class prostitution, to the morality of selling out an acquaintance even though you know your actions will bring them nothing but harm. Yet these moments are deftly delivered without slowing the pace or detracting from the plot – they are simply a part of the story, just as much as the sturdy, matter-of-fact nature of the Icelandic characters. When some investigators might turn to drugs, booze or self-indulgent misery, Gunna and her fella spar with affectionate wit; Bates totally nails the dialogue between a loving, comfortable couple.
His writing is less quirky and more accessible than some Nordic authors (although you will need to be able to cope with Icelandic names if you’re to keep track of the cast). Although ‘Chilled’ unflinchingly portrays callous violence, it doesn’t submerge the reader in the overwhelmingly claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere so typical of Scandinavian mysteries. It’s written fluently and with crisp clarity, and crams multi-faceted texture into a rapid read. ‘Chilled’ contrasts intimately personal moments of fear, dismay and consequence against Iceland’s recent political landscape.
This is gripping fiction, with a wicked villain and a marvellously robust female protagonist, but it feels only a step removed from the real world. After being somewhat ambivalent about the first book in this series, I’m now eagerly anticipating the next…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Chilled To The Bone is available in paperback and ebook formats