SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION
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.
The first book of Quentin Bates’ Officer Gunnhilder series, “Frozen Assets,” uses the impending 2008 global collapse of the banking and financial markets as a backdrop and as a motivation for murder. This second book picks up in the early spring of 2009 and uses the resulting collapse of the real estate and construction markets as the motivation for yet another murder. Bates also uses the precarious financial situation in Iceland as background for the problems in manpower and resources the Reykjavik police force are facing.
As our story opens, as far as the police, in general, and Sergeant Gunna Gisladottir, in particular, are concerned, two seemingly unrelated crimes have been committed. First, Long Ommi has escaped from a minimum-security prison only months before a scheduled parole. Secondly, Svana Geirs, a fitness guru and has-been TV personality, has been murdered. Both cases are assigned to the Serious Crime Unit, of which Gunna is the de facto head.
The ongoing financial crisis has prevented Gunna’s promised promotion to Inspector and Gunna’s Chief Inspector is on extended, and probably permanent, medical leave. So that leaves only three investigators in the entire unit to deal, with Gunna in charge and with Helgi and Eirikur reporting to her.
Helgi is currently spearheading the formidable task of retrieving Long Ommi, who is leaving in his wake a trail of bloody and badly beaten former associates. While none of the victims, who all testified against him at his trial, will identify him as their assailant, the assaults have been relatively public. Ommi even forces one of his former associates, a mentally challenged young man, to commit armed bank robbery with no mask. Gunna and her team, upon reviewing Ommi’s original case, come to believe that he took the fall for someone else at the time and is now exacting revenge.
Then Svana Geirs is found bludgeoned to death. Trace analysis of her apartment yields the very fresh prints of four wealthy and prominent men, a property developer, an import/export entrepreneur, an accounting firm executive and a Minister of Parliament. Apparently, Svana Geirs was a very popular woman. However, there is also a fifth set of fingerprints, all over the kitchen where the body was found – the prints of Long Ommi.
With two seemingly disparate cases now related through Ommi and with the inclusion of several very well connected personages as murder suspects, Deputy National Commissioner Ivar Laxdal jumps in to lend Gunna and her team political and tactical assistance. He is a smart, savvy individual and he uses his administrative and political skills to run interference for Gunna so that she and her team can do what they do best, which is to investigate, interrogate and incarcerate.
Four men are involved through what Gunna terms the “Svana Syndicate.” A fifth person, Ommi, is involved through connections to both Svana personally and a member of the Syndicate professionally. And then the sixth degree of separation strikes Gunna’s team.
Quentin Bates has, since the opening pages of the novel, traced the financial and personal downfall of one building contractor, a kitchen and bath specialist, who was destroyed when the company he sub-contracted to declared bankruptcy after the banking crisis destroyed the real estate market. He lost his business, his house, his vehicles, his furnishings, his marriage and his child. Even after the repossessions, the banks are still hounding him to repay the loans. All that is left are a few tools, an old ragged van and people who pay him under the table to fix their plumbing. He sleeps where he can find a spot, with barely enough income for food, petrol and child support. And the man he blames for it all, the developer who declared the bankruptcy of one of his lower lever contracting companies while retaining all his other considerable assets, is one of the Svana Syndicate. It is the goal of our plumber to make both the developer and the bank’s loan officer pay for their poor ethics.
Before this novel is over, Bates will have us experience desperation, depression, vengeance, revenge, blackmail and vigilante justice. We will encounter baseball bats, broken table legs, carpet knives, fists and a sawed off shotgun. We will witness so many people lying about so many things that we will begin to suspect that the only legitimate response to anything is “whatever.”
Bates’ narrative style is a bit unusual for a mystery novel. He accomplishes almost all scenarios through the use of dialogue only. We gain almost all our information and clues through the conversations that the characters have with each other. With the exception of the plumber and Gunna, very few internal monologues are included. And the descriptions of scenery and people are both sparse and concise. This type of narrative, along with the Icelandic colloquialisms, is a bit difficult to deal with at first, but the challenge to solving the murder is heightened by both.
However, two actions by Bates gave me a bit of pause. First, the storyline is quite complex and convoluted when what starts as three separate incidents merge into one large conflagration. But Bates adds to the complexity by having two sets of characters with very similar names: Bjartmar and Bjarki along with Skari and Skuli. Since some of these characters are good guys, some are bad guys and some fall on both sides of the fence, it really slows down the reading process when you have to mentally sort and match the names to their relationship with the Svana Syndicate.
The other problem is what I perceive as a prejudice against wealthy or politically influential women. Every female character that fits those criteria, in both this book and the previous one, is portrayed as an insensitive, opportunistic, angry, jealous and vengeful witch – from the formerly upward-moving plumber’s wife to the wives of each member of the Syndicate. The “working class” female characters are crafted with the same serious problems as the wealthy women, including spousal death, infidelity, abandonment and loss of assets from the banking crisis. But they are portrayed as having a level of sense that over-rides their jealousies and misfortunes, a common sense that pushes them to work through a personal or financial issue rather than to beat someone over the head with it.
The first of these two issues is petty and surmountable. The second is perhaps an interesting account of situations that the author had an opportunity to witness during his many years as a resident of Iceland. Either way, neither will stop me from continuing with the series and trying my hand at solving a murder when all I know is what I “hear” the characters say out loud.
Cover Art From Goodreads