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THE SHADOW DISTRICT
by Arnaldur Indrišason and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Harvill Secker, June 2017
368 pages
$32.99 CAD
ISBN: 1911215051


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Iceland currently boasts a year-round population of 334,303 persons. The figure does not include tourists, who are expected to number around two and a half million this year. I find it difficult to imagine the effect of a periodic influx of this size on a small country with a relatively homogenous population, no matter what wonders it may do for the Icelandic economy, but Iceland has been there before, during the Second World War, when an American army base was located close to Reykjavķk.

Iceland at the time was a largely isolated, agrarian nation, just about to become an independent republic, with a culture heavily steeped in Norse folklore and traditional custom. The city numbered some 40,000 persons. Tens of thousands of American soldiers poured into town yearly during the war and their presence wrenched the country into the 20th century for good or for ill. It is an historical moment that has long interested Arnaldur Indrišason and in THE SHADOW DISTRICT he returns to it while launching his new series.

In 1944, a young woman was found in an alley behind the National Theatre, strangled. The couple who first found her, an American soldier, Frank Carroll, and his Icelandic girlfriend Ingiborg fled the scene and did not report what they had stumbled across to the police. But Ingiborg was recognized by a passerby, who identified her to the cops and the investigation proceeded. As the Canadian policeman seconded to the US Army as liaison observes, "It's not a tough job...being a cop in Reykjavķk."

But it does turn out tougher than expected and ultimately the case remains unresolved. Now, some fifty years later, an old man who was involved in the investigation is found dead in his bed, and he too has been murdered. A recently retired police detective named Konrįd is intrigued by the case, largely because it appears to be connected to the old murder, which seriously affected his father in its aftermath.

The story alternates between past and present, in a combination of intelligent and persistent detection and an evocation of an older Iceland, one in which girls dating Americans was called the "Situation" and viewed with alarm; one in which it was at least plausible to maintain that a member of the huldufólk (generally called elves in English), was responsible for rape.

I was very sorry when Arnaldur's protagonist, Inspector Erlendur wandered off into the frozen wastes of an Icelandic winter, but I am pleased to discover that Konrįd, while not yet as developed as his predecessor, is still very promising a character. And Arnaldur's talent for evoking his country without destroying its essential strangeness remains undiminished. Even if Erlendur never comes in from the cold, this new series will certainly compensate for his absence. (At least one and possibly two entries have already been published, though not yet translated into English.)

Victoria Cribb's translation is serviceable and readable. A measure of the difficulties translators face is indicated by the range of suggested titles for the original Skuggasund, which literally means "Shadow Swimming." In addition to the present choice, I found SHADOW ALLEY, SHADOW CHANNEL, and THE MAN FROM MANITOBA as possibilities. Read the book yourself to decide if the English editors made the right choice.

As SHADOW ALLEY, the book won "the world's most lucrative crime fiction award," the Spanish RBA International Prize for Crime Writing worth €125,000, in 2013, which I think it richly deserved.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, June 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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