Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates

Gunna Gísladóttir, a detective segeant in the Reykjavik police force, has a corpse on her hands. Though it seems likely the wealthy gentleman died of natural causes, he  did so in rather unusual circumstances. Someone had tied him to a hotel bed as part of a discreet bit of bondage. Whoever his partner was has disappeared. Gunna soon discovers that hotels Chilled to the Bonearound the city are aware of a woman who men have been hiring to participate in such entertainments, only to abscond with their valubles as soon as they were tied up.

The absconder adds a bit of insurance by photographing the men in their embarrassing situation, just in case they decided to give her trouble. After a quick shopping expedition, she always calls the front desk to have her hapless, humailiated mark set free.

This con has been working out very well indeed for Hekla, who (readers soon find out) has put away enough money that she can begin to think about retiring – until an unfortuanate heart attack intervened. But that’s not the least of Hekla’s worries, as it turns out. A laptop she acquired during one of her jobs has something on it that some government officials want very badly.

In the third book in the series, Quentin Bates tosses a number of balls in the air and keeps them moving. Gunna is not the only one looking for the mysterious woman who takes the role of dominatrix in an unexpectedly prosaic direction. A criminal who has recently returned to Iceland after years in a Baltic prison is also on the hunt, hired by a desperate civil servant who lost a laptop.

Gunna is a great protagonist – down to earth, capable, wonderfully balanced even when her children throw challenges her way. Hekla, the conwoman, is also a sympathetic character, trying to take care of her family as her country is putting the pieces back together after a disastrous banking collapse. Even the aptly-named Baddó, a hard man who can kill people without remorse on his way to a missing laptop, comes to life as a fully rounded human being. There are a number of secondary characters, including Baddó’s criminal associates and unsavory officials who don’t want the emails on the missing laptop revealed. The frequent shifts from one point of view to another sometimes mades it hard for me (a lazy reader) to keep track of who’s who. Personally, I would have liked to spend as much page time as possible with Gunna.

Once again Quentin Bates gives us a view of a small country that has been buffeted by change, first pulled out of its traditional hard-scrabble economy by high-flying bankers, then doing their best to recover from the crash the bankers created as well as from the cultural hangover of having had too much wealth injected into their society too quickly. There is a sense, toward the end, that something fundamental is still out of joint, that there are crimes that the police can’t protect the people of their little island from. But there is also the promise that Gunna and her team will do their best, regardless.

For more about the author and his views on Iceland, see an interview with the author from 2011.

Review of Cold Comfort by Quentin Bates

The second volume in the Gunhilder Gisladottir series set in Iceland, this complex story focuses on  the murder of an enterprising woman who has set up her own escort service, with a handful of wealthy men as her clients in a kind of time-share arrangement. The men have various positions that are all, one way or another, affected by the financial crash that has thoroughly shaken the small and highly independent island nation. Gunna also has to investigate the escape of a dangerous prisoner who is capable of significant violence. In addition to these two twisty plot lines, we follow the disintegrating life of a desperate man who has lost everything in the crash and who is building up to something dramatic.

On the negative side, I found the pacing uneven and the primary investigation both confusing and not terribly engaging. Though the murdered woman was in many ways emblematic of the changes in Iceland’s economy and culture, being a failed actress and fitness trainer – a far cry from the hardscrabble agriculture and fishing that once sustained Icelanders, with clients whose lives aren’t much more meaningful – I might have been more interested if I cared more about the victim or felt some suspense about the outcome.

On the positive side, the thread dealing with the escaped convict was more intriguing, but what I really found absorbing, and wanted more of, was the man at the end of his tether who we know is about to do something violent, and yet we come to care about him and his predicament.

As in the first book in the series, Gunna is both a smart detective and a winning character with enough of a home life that we get to know her well. The glimpses we get of Iceland’s burst bubble – tracts of outsized empty houses, underfunded social services, and families wrecked when they lost everything through no fault of their own – are compelling and sobering.

I’ll gladly try the next in this series, given its engaging heroine and interesting setting, but will cross my fingers for a brisker pace and a mystery that pulls me in.