Monday, October 30, 2017

In which I read my first Nordic noir: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason, a Reykjavik wartime mystery

Have you ever picked up a novel in an unfamiliar genre, expecting to be pushed out of your comfort zone, only to discover it fits your tastes very well?

As a librarian I’ve been aware of the popularity of Scandinavian noir but hadn’t read any of these books, figuring most were too dark and violent. Then a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District showed up. I began reading on Saturday morning and was finished by Sunday afternoon.

The subtitle says “a thriller,” but I’d call it more of a traditional crime novel, of the police procedural variety (sort of). The pacing is methodical, which disappointed some people on Goodreads, but I don’t think historical fiction readers will mind. The crimes aren’t graphically described, either.

The setting is Iceland, predominantly Reykjavík; the timeframe is both the present day and 1944. A ninety-year-old pensioner is found to have died in bed in his flat—not an unusual scenario. But when the hospital pathologist learns he was smothered, it becomes a police matter. Konrád, a retired detective, can’t resist getting involved when he learns about old news clippings in the man’s apartment about a young woman’s unsolved murder during WWII. Strangely, Konrád has a personal connection to that older case: his own father, a con man, had helped arrange a fake séance for the girl’s distraught parents.

The two murders, 70 years apart, are linked through more than just Konrád, of course, and it’s up to him to discover how. Back in 1944, during a late-night romantic tryst, an Icelandic woman and her American soldier boyfriend discover a young woman’s body behind the National Theatre in the city’s Shadow District. Two detectives, an Icelandic policeman and a Canadian-born man representing the American military police, team up to solve the crime.

“It’s not exactly a tough job… being a cop in Reykjavík,” remarks Thorson, the Canadian, to his unofficial new partner. The city’s population isn’t large, and there are a couple of “small world” scenarios in their investigation. The writing is deceptively straightforward. Midway through, I was surprised to note how complex the storyline had become. Good mysteries focus as much on character as plot, however, and The Shadow District emphasizes its characters’ humanity, the victims’ included.

All of their experiences draw in interesting elements from Icelandic history and culture, from the island’s American occupation during WWII, and the controversial romances between Yanks and local women (which becomes known as the “Situation”), to the deep-rooted beliefs in the “hidden people,” or huldufólk, in the country’s rural regions. Also, all Icelanders are addressed by their first names, and the author either assumes you know this or will pick it up from context. Similarly, the characters disdain excessive formality and, when called “miss” or “sir” by police, make it clear that it isn’t necessary.

There’s a bit of repetition early on, and the 1940s-set chapters aren’t noted as such, which creates some initial confusion. Taken as a whole, the novel stresses how the past is as alive as ever. The Shadow District is first in a new series, and I’ll be reading the others. Fans of other wartime mysteries, like those of Charles Todd, may want to try it.

The Shadow District, which is a LibraryReads pick for November, will be published by Minotaur in early November; Harvill Secker published it in the UK in May. It's translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.


  1. I read one murder mystery where the storyline was good but I think it was stilted because of the translation.

  2. I've had that experience too, though I didn't think that was the case with this book.

  3. Anonymous3:02 PM

    There's a joke about how there are more murders in Icelandic fiction than there actually are in Reykjavik . .

    Sarah OL