“FREE SPEECH IS THERE FOR THOSE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT”
DISCLAIMER: For ease of typing and transferring content on specialized web pages, I have chosen not to use the accents that normally accompany the Icelandic names in this story. I do not mean any disrespect.
It is late August of 2008 in the small southwestern town of Hvalvik, Iceland. The body of a young man has been found floating near the docks, in the early dawn, by a commercial fisherman on his way out to sea. Called to the scene is Sergeant Gunna Gisladottir, the ranking member of Hvalvik’s two-person provincial police force and the main protagonist of our story.
Once a member of the police force in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, Gunna is in her mid-thirties, a widow of eight years with two teenage children. While the criminal action in Hvalvik is pretty tame compared to that of Reykjavik, Gunna is in a good place emotionally, her children are happy and she is well liked and well respected as both a person and a police officer.
Finding the body without any ID and knowing that he is definitely not a local, Gunna calls for forensic assistance. When the body is identified as that of an employee of Spearpoint, a prominent Reykjavik firm, Gunna’s investigative senses begin to twitch. It seems Spearpoint is the project development and PR firm for the InterAlu smelting plant being built in Hvalvik.
When the autopsy reveals that the victim was intoxicated to the point of being severely incapacitated, Gunna’s senses are perked up even more. But when routine investigation reveals that the victim didn’t like to drink and that he had been seen 100 km away only a few hours before his body was found, Gunna knows that she has something far worse that a death by misadventure. She is looking at a murder. The only way he could have gotten under her docks was for someone to drive him there and push him in.
Now murder in Iceland is not as commonplace as it is in America. Therefore, such an investigation is noticeable. Before Gunna can get any real traction on the case, her Chief Inspector orders her to cease, that higher-ups have declared it an accidental drowning. And he offers her an immediate promotion to Inspector in a regional force completely on the other side of the country.
But Gunna is not that easily taken in. She knows that when she questioned the lad’s boss and his co-workers that a few political toes felt stepped on. The employer is the wife of Iceland’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and her company is connected at the hip to the political, environmental and economic powder keg that is the InterAlu plant. Gunna has also discovered that the lad’s best friend, a political lobbyist for Clean Iceland, was run down and killed several months prior.
Even though the case is officially closed, pertinent information keeps surfacing. A villager remembers a non-local car he saw at the docks that night. A bridge inspection in a neighboring town yields an SUV that matches the hit-and-run vehicle from the friend’s death. And then a CCTV source requested earlier actually leads her to a tentative ID of the murderer.
Finally, there is Skandalblogger, a rogue website hosted out of country. This blog is set up strictly to criticize members of Iceland’s political and financial powerbase – and their wives, girlfriends, side pieces and paid companions. The information published on the web is not just someone’s rants and personal opinions. Apparently, Skandalblogger is someone strategically positioned in government and simply has access to the salacious details faster than the press or the cops.
And it is Skandalblogger that gets the murder investigation reinstated when it posts details of what is being covered up. Suddenly the National Commissioner’s deputy overrules the Chief Inspector and Gunna is placed in charge of a task force to locate the suspected murderer, Gunnar Harde.
Quentin Bates has crafted a police procedural around an actual true event, the global financial collapse of 2008. Using the main characters of Gunna, Harde and Skandalblogger, along with the major secondary characters of Snorri, Skuli and Signorjona, Bates weaves a tale of political and financial corruption that erupts into the lives of the average and ordinary populace with a vengeance. Murder, extortion, coercion, insider trading, protest marches, environmental destruction and corruption within the justice system are all part and parcel of this package.
Bates also creates two remarkable major characters to carry the storyline. First, Gunna is a more than competent police officer. She is an excellent investigator, knows how to lead a team without bullying and has the town’s respect. She has her demons, particularly several that are related to her husband’s death, but those demons no longer affect either her job or her role as a parent. She is definitely a character worth pursuing into future novels.
Bates’ portrayal of the hired muscle, Harde, is also notable. He is the typical military-trained assassin. He intimidates and kills as part of the job, not because it is something for which he lives and breathes. He is a villain with a defined moral compass more solidly aligned than the situational ethics of his employer. He is a sociopath, rather than a flaming psychopath, and while he is intelligent and crafty, he has no illusions of being invincible.
The dialogue throughout the story is individualized to the characters and the settings. Gunna, her team and the townspeople use their colloquialisms while the higher-ups are more formal. The characters don’t always speak in complete sentences or with perfect grammar, and thus, their conversations feel realistic.
Another device Bates uses to give the reader a feeling of connectivity to the story is the way he titles his chapters. Each chapter represents one calendar day. And within each chapter, Bates uses spacing and markings to indicate clearly when he is switching from one situation to either a parallel-in-time scenario or a subsequent scene with another set of characters.
The resolutions for the main storyline and its subplots are not perfect in that not everyone gets what the average mystery reader might feel they deserve. But those resolutions are realistic when a government framework is factored in. Thankfully, there is no cliffhanger to fret over. However, a scenario is presented that could support a future book.
Cover Art From Goodreads