The latest ‘Icelandic Murder Mystery’ is an ideal introduction to this series. I’ve read all the preceding episodes but reckon you can sit straight down with this one without any introduction. Cold Breath is immensely readable and stylishly constructed from multiple viewpoints; the policewoman at the core of the story; an investigative journalist who’s off his meds; the political apparatchik seeking to spin every story; the investigative team trying to resolve a false confession, and a compact team of contract killers led by a definitely deadly female of the species. Their storylines converge around the central figure: a high-profile but politically dubious visitor whom Officer Gunnhilda is tasked with protecting.
As the series subtitle suggests, there is a murder (in fact there’s several, which would skew the true Icelandic crime stats for half a decade!) and there is a mystery, but the mystery is not the who or the how of the murder. Instead the narrative blends the best aspects of a page-turning, high-stakes, global conspiracy thriller with the down-to-earth, painstaking procedures of a realistic police investigation. It spans hostile witness interviews to scouring CCTV footage – all the aspects of pulling together a jigsaw puzzle from misleading fragments to produce a thoroughly satisfying yet unpredictable picture.
Some long-running Scandi / Nordic crime series can become swamped by the minutiae of the detective’s domestic lives; you think you’re sitting down with a thriller but instead find yourself mired in unexpected pregnancies, troublesome teens and marital collapse. Author Quentin Bates cleverly sidesteps all this: Officer Gunna is a robustly constructed character with a complex personal life but hers is a stable situation which provides an emotional anchorage during the events of the story. It’s integral to her, but incidental to the tale. And what an intriguing tale this is…
…mainly because the other characters are similarly solid and intellectually engaging. There are no bit-players here – even the most incidental individual comes complete with a convincing back story and the appropriate motivation to make their actions believable. The journalist, for instance, is fighting depression and ‘imposter syndrome’, which makes him a far more sympathetic person than if he’d simply been a glory hound spewing bile on the 24-hour news cycle.
And, as usual, Bates imbues his bad guys with sufficient charisma that you can’t help enjoying the time spent in their company… while the person who everyone is protecting turns out to be so morally ambiguous that your skin crawls while he schmoozes with lecherous intent.
This is easily my favourite Officer Gunna story so far, which bodes well for the next one. It’s a cliché, but for once this is accurate: this series truly does get better with every new book.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Cold Breath by Quentin Bates is available at Amazon
Seeking more intelligent criminal activity?
Try The Stoner Stories: available at Amazon