Review published on March 16, 2018.
They say that Iceland has more novelists per head of population than any other country and that 10% of the people have written a book. This may be apocryphal but an awful lot of good crime writers have been coming from the island in recent years: Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa and Lilja Sigurdardottir, Ragnar Jonasson et al. Now add Kristjansson, better known as a fantasy writer, to the list because he has begun a new Icelandic historical mystery series that will charm readers and I think will have longevity.
Kin is the first Helga Finnsdottir mystery and is well worth a read (a second novel, The Council, is already planned). I confess this is lighter than I expected and lighter than I generally like my crime stories to be but that’s a personal preference not a criticism. It’s tone is more Agatha Christie than Jo Nesbo and despite the dark nature of family murder Kin is highly entertaining and a lot of fun. Kristjansson has hit upon a clever and original idea, setting a murder mystery in the Viking era and creating a detective who does not fit the usual mode. It all hinges on long festering issues, sibling rivalry and greed – nothing is as incendiary as bad blood within the family.
Kin opens with the family servants and adopted daughter Helga preparing beds in the barn for the arrival of the brothers, it is the first time in many years that the clan have gotten back together. Oldest brother, Bjorn, left eleven summers ago, just before Helga arrived so she has never met him. Now he is back with his family and so are Karl, Jorunn and Aslak, the other brothers with their families too. This is not a happy clan, the tensions are evident from the moment the family comes together again. The patriarch is Unnthor of Riverside is the Chieftain of Ren; father and grandfather of the clan, husband to Hildegunnur (the formidable matriarch of the family). He has called the clan gathering. Need and duty have drawn the brothers back but they are all unaware of their father’s motives.
Legend has it that Unnthor brought great wealth back from a Viking raid to the south many years ago. A chest of treasure is said to buried on his farm; the brother covet this treasure. Unnthor has always felt that his sons should make their own way in the world, he will have no truck with them leaning on him or his money. No sooner have the brothers been reunited than they are at each others throats, the fissures open instantly. A fight breaks out between Bjorn and Karl, whom we can gather have never seen eye to eye. Eventually an uneasy peace settles, but as the family gather to eat they realise that Bjorn and Thyri’s young son, Voland, has gone missing. It is Helga, ignoring her mother’s instructions, who finds the boy at the new barn, asleep but unharmed. It’s a glimpse of the detective instincts of Helga, she will need them when the impending tragedy finally strikes. For now the family eat and drink, they hunt and hold a contest of games.
So far the story has the feel of a family epic. It all takes place in a remote valley in Iceland in 970. There are echoes of the Nordic sagas, an homage to the first great European literary tradition. Kristjansson’s easy prose style brings the settlement and it’s residents to life, this feels like an authentic Viking clan. The opening of old wounds and the creation of tensions between the rival brothers and their offspring continues to mount as the tragedy strikes. Who is murdered? You will have to find out for yourself but as everyone in the family comes under suspicion it is Helga’s powers of observation, her distance, she is a bit of a loner, that make her the ideal person to uncover what has happened. For the family, there is further tragedy to come.
The characters seem to have stepped right out of the dark ages, simple earthy visceral people. Helga is young and bright, more than anything curious, which is what drives her. Bjorn’s daughter Gytha, a free spirited, unhappy soul rings true. The mystery hinges on the dynamic within the family and they are a feisty bunch, several of the women are spirited and interesting. The images created are very visual, the tension between members of the family and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the settlement almost cut off from the world are well realised. It’s all delivered with panache. There is enough here to think that Helga can sustain a series and it will be interesting to see how she develops outside of the family environment.
Paul Burke 3/4
Kin by Snorri Kristjansson
Jo Fletcher Books 9781786489937 hbk Mar 2018