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by Arnaldur Indriđason and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Random House Canada, October 2010
336 pages
$32.00 CAD
ISBN: 0307359387

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is, I believe, the first of Arnaldur's books not to feature police Inspector Erlendur to be translated into English - a standalone thriller set largely on the huge Vatnajökull glacier in the middle of winter. In 1945, a German Junkers bomber carrying a mixed group of German and American passengers and piloted by a young American air force man, crashed in a blizzard on the vast glacier and was rapidly submerged in the ice. Various Americans have been looking for it ever since, among them the brother of the pilot and other, more sinister, interests.

In 1999, when the action takes place, the glacier has disgorged the plane, it has been spotted, and a race is on to get to it before the secrets it conceals are made known to the world. What these secrets may be are only gradually revealed (though the experienced thriller-reader is likely to guess where it is all headed fairly early), but whatever they may be, they are felt to justify the off-hand, conscienceless slaying of anyone who threatens the operation.

Chief among these is Kirstin, a remarkably resourceful and fit thirty-year-old lawyer employed by the Foreign Ministry, who receives a phone call from her brother from the glacier just before he was apparently killed. She heads off for the site in the company of her ex-boyfriend Steve, an American living on the US military base at Keflavík airport. The two then embark on a hazardous journey to the centre of the mystery, their lives threatened at every moment.

Viewed simply as a thriller, OPERATION NAPOLEON is serviceable and entertaining, if not especially original in concept. But viewed as a window into an unfamiliar and little-understood country, it is fascinating. It first appeared in 1999 in Icelandic and thus pre-dates the present decade - 9/11, the second Iraq war, the Icelandic banking crisis - to return to a point when the US was still a military presence, when the country was still embarrassingly dependent on America for employment and money. Kirstin is a proud Icelander, one who sees the Americans as an unwelcome occupying force in her country. It would appear to be a sentiment shared by the author, who provides a cast of American characters who are unyielding in their sense of righteous entitlement and arrogant in their demands. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Fans of Erlendur will be pleased to note the persistence of certain of the themes that recur in that series. The haunting sense of familial guilt and responsibility, the danger and beauty of the landscape, the possibility of irretrievable loss in the snow and ice, even the pivotal importance of the American presence in the country's history, all appear here. You may well miss Erlendur (I did), but you will certainly gain some valuable insights into the country that made him.

The translation by Victoria Cribb is bearable, if stiff.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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