The Shadow Killer: Iceland at war

shadow killerIt seems that there’s an insatiable appetite for crime novels which are also war stories – historical fiction which uses the international upheaval of WW2 as its dramatic backdrop. I blame Bernie Gunther… but find these philosophical investigations as compelling as any contemporary thrillers. It’s as if we still can’t come to terms with what happened in the decade from 1935 – and, of course, we’re all living in a situation shaped by the political machinations of that time.

In the latest variation on this theme, well-established Scandi crime author Arnaldur Indriðason detours from his series of modern-day police procedurals to examine this impact of war from an unusual angle, away from the usual setting of Continental Europe. This story highlights Iceland’s abrupt introduction to the harsher realities of 20th century life; strategically important but geographically isolated. Socially remote, too – and that’s just one of the aspects of Icelandic history which Indriðason examines in these contemplative, meandering (yes, not unlike this review) murder-mysteries when a dispersed population suddenly underwent an accelerated expansion of urban and industrial development.

In the Shadow series, Reykjavik is reeling, not from the onslaught of an armed invasion but from the cultural upheaval that comes when a ‘protective’ military takes up garrison; when the young people comes flooding in from the countryside, abandoning the seasonal pace of a simple life for the accelerated sophistication of urban existence.

Before the war, many young women never left their local farmsteads. Six months later, the ports were stuffed full of Allied servicemen. A generation gap appeared almost overnight, as horizons stretched beyond the stark lava fields to the bright lights of big cities.

Too many of the new arrivals discovered only poverty, exploitation, deceit and abuse. No ‘Morality Committee’ could stem this tide, and in The Shadow Killer the policemen must mop up the mess when blood is spilled in civilian situations. Into this situation, Indriðason deposits a dead body, a missing person, an inexperienced investigator and a military man – inevitably under pressure from his superiors. Local policeman Flóvent and soldier Thorson (Canadian of Icelandic descent) start tugging on loose threads. Pretty soon they have a tangle of personal betrayals, eugenics experiments, Nazi sympathisers and emotional abuse to unravel.

The plot proceeds at a measured rate – this certainly is no fast-paced page-turner, and nor is it a whodunit where the reader stands much chance of pre-empting the dénouement. It is, however, the type of criminal investigation where you can immerse yourself in the intricacy of the story.

This is the second book in the Shadow series, not that it matters if you haven’t read the first. The characters seem barely related to the protagonists in The Shadow District; I’ve read both, but wasn’t really clear about the timeline. The relationship between Flóvent and Thorson seemed curiously muted in Killer, and for most of the time they work in parallel, not in partnership.

If Flóvent and Thorson tend to fade into the background, it’s so that the stories of the witnesses, suspects, conspirators and victims can take centre stage. Their tangled sins and secrets might serve to mislead, or to bring us closer to the truth. Either way, their revelations give us an insight into the lives of a unique people at a time of extreme stress.

If you prefer your crime novels to be all about the central detective and his/her domestic situation, then the Shadow series may not suit you. Fans of the Erlendur investigations might struggle to find a key character to latch onto in these stories. For me, it’s the country itself – Iceland is the protagonist, fighting an internal war which sets the past against the future. It’s a nation in flux, torn between the competing ideologies of the Allies and the Axis, and depicted with quiet dexterity by an accomplished author.

8/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indriðason is available at Amazon

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