The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason

Review published on May 12, 2018.

This is the first in a new series from the godfather of Icelandic crime fiction, and it’s a really strong start, but only time will tell whether it can match the Erlandur series for popularity. Sadly, we have had to say goodbye to Erlandur, one of the finest detective creations in modern crime fiction. The brilliant and original series which opened with Jar City, (also known as Tainted Blood), set the bar very high so there was a lot to live up to. I think I expected to be disappointed because of that but I thoroughly enjoyed this historical thriller.

Iceland has a rich history and played a significant part in East-West relations during the Cold War. Indridason has delved into the origins of the relationship between Iceland and the US as background for his story. It’s a subject that has cropped up in the Erlander series but it will remain at the heart of the Reykjavik Wartime murder mystery series. British troops were based in Iceland until 1941, when they were replaced by the Americans. By 1944, there were 10,000 troops stationed in the city with a local population of 40,000 people, which coloured and changed the nature of the place.

The death of a lonely old man, in the present, throws light on a murder that happened in 1944. He hasn’t been seen outside his apartment for a few days when the police find his body. He’s 90 so it looks like natural causes but the autopsy shows that there are fibres in the throat. Does this suggest suffocation and murder? During the war, the situation was a lot like Britain; rationing, hardship and relationships between the island girls and the soldiers were commonplace. Ingiborg is stepping out with Frank from Illinois, they duck into an alley for a smooch but what they find is more than they bargained for. The body of a dead girl has been crudely hidden by street detritus. Ingiborg wants to report it but Frank wants to run away. The problem for them is they are seen by a woman who knows Ingiborg and, because she is suspicious, she finds the newly exposed corpse. Back in the present, Konrad is retired, his old colleague, Marta, tells him about the old man’s death, his curiosity is piqued. The only thing of interest the police find when searching the old man’s flat are clippings of the wartime murder. The wartime body was found in the Shadow District, the streets behind the National Theatre, where Konrád grew up. He can’t resist investigating, and it leads him to Flovent, the Icelandic policeman and one of the founders of the CID and his partner, Thorson, an American MP (a Canadian with Icelandic ancestry). Konrád knows his father was involved in a séance with the parents of the dead girl at the time.

The Shadow District is not just about a modern investigation uncovering things that the wartime detectives missed (a common plot device) because this is setting-up the series for the Flovent and Thorson investigations in future novels. Undermining them at the start wouldn’t be very productive so it’s a bit more complex and that’s what makes it interesting. In this context the dead nonagenarian opens a door on the original investigation and, as there is no paperwork to check, Konrád helps us to see how the case was worked originally. The crossing between two timelines is really well done, unfolding both strands of the story without giving anything away inadvertently. Indridason is a skilful plotter with a firm grasp of how to tell a story to keep the reader guessing.

Indridason’s earlier war time adventure novel, Operation Napoleon, was a bit of a disappointment and what might be called a pot boiler. Here he’s back on form, delving into the past, understanding the history and bringing war time Reykjavik to life. Konrád, the retired detective, is amiable but the important characters are Flovent and Thorson. They have an interesting working relationship and I think they will get into some fascinating cases in the coming series. As an opener this is very good; a very enjoyable read. I will certainly look out the next in the series, Shadow Killer.

Paul Burke 4/3

The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason
Vintage 9781784704414 pbk Mar 2018

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