Source: Review copy
Publication: e-book 28 August Paperback 28 October 2021 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
Áróra returns to Iceland when her estranged sister goes missing, and her search leads to places she could never have imagined.
Icelandic sisters Áróra and Ísafold live in different countries and aren‘t on speaking terms, but when their mother loses contact with Ísafold, Áróra reluctantly returns to Iceland to find her sister. But she soon realizes that her sister isn’t avoiding her … she has disappeared, without trace.
As she confronts Ísafold’s abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend Björn, and begins to probe her sister’s reclusive neighbours – who have their own reasons for staying out of sight – Áróra is led into an ever-darker web of intrigue and manipulation.
Baffled by the conflicting details of her sister’s life, and blinded by the shiveringly bright midnight sun of the Icelandic summer, Áróra enlists the help of police officer Daníel, as she tries to track her sister’s movements, and begins to tail Björn – but she isn’t the only one watching…
Slick, tense, atmospheric and superbly plotted, Cold as Hell marks the start of a riveting, addictive new series from one of Iceland’s bestselling crime writers.
There’s a confidence and muscularity to Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s writing that I love. No more so than in her protagonist, Áróra Jónsdóttir, in the first of this new series. Now Lilja returns to the theme of financial crimes first explored in her trilogy Snare, Trap and Cage. Áróra is a financial investigator who specialises in tracking missing money, especially delicious when they are the proceeds of crime.
She’s been living in Edinburgh, the financial capital of Scotland, and using it as a base to travel across the world doing her work. Her mother is settled in Newcastle and it is only her sister, Ísafold, older by six years, who has remained in Iceland.
Áróra and Ísafold have a difficult relationship. The older sister is conventionally beautiful, blonde and petite and has wrapped their mother round her little finger. But she is a poor judge of character and Áróra has long since tired of rescuing her from her abusive partner, drug dealer Björn. After one too many trips to the hospital with Ísafold, Áróra realises her sister won’t change and will always skulk back to the manipulative Björn. So the pair don’t speak now and Ísafold realises that she can no longer count on Áróra to come to her rescue.
But when their mother, Violet tells her that her sister has disappeared and begs Áróra to look for her, she knows she has little choice but to return to Iceland to begin her search.
Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s novel follows a dual strand; the investigation of her sister’s disappearance and a financial investigation that pretty much falls into Áróra’s lap as she sets out to satisfy her need for good but uncomplicated sex.
Sigurðardóttir writes in very short chapters, so short that they remind me in structure of a James Patterson book. This allows the reader to focus in on that moment in time, to absorb what’s happening and to grasp a very clear picture of what’s going on.
This is good, because there are a lot of threads to weave together here. Ísafold and Björn’s neighbours have secrets of their own; The older woman and the younger refugee – staying without authority in the country. The reclusive somewhat obsessive Grimdur, whose name is an indicator of just some of his creepiness.
Then there’s Daniel. Some kind of relative, though not the uncle her mother claims, Daniel is a policeman with useful access to police systems and he and Áróra have a tension between them that is clearly destined to get quite interesting, because Daniel is the only man who can get under Áróra’s skin and that unsettles her rather more than she likes. Áróra likes to think of herself as strong and determined and she is both of these things, but she shies away from anything with more emotional depth and that is her flaw. She has tried to self-justify her attitude to her sister, but when push comes to shove, the old adage that blood is thicker than water propels her back home.
Iceland has a low murder rate, but it still has a lot of people who go missing every year and are never found. It is this aspect of life on an often bleak and grey island that Sigurðardóttir explores here, creating a chilling and sometimes stark novel where much happens in the shadows and there are plenty of false leads and pieces of misdirection to keep the reader on their toes.
By giving us an insight into all her major characters and letting is hear their thoughts, she offers us insight from which we should be able to divine what is going on. But her characters don’t always tell themselves the truth and their flaws keep them human and readers interested.
Lilja Sigurðardóttir has a brilliant knack for tying together socio-economic issues with character led murder mysteries and here it is used to great effect. As she effortlessly moves from scenes of domestic drama to high finance crimes with sprinkles of Icelandic politics and the contemporary refugee situation, she has created a rounded drama that combines the personal and the political. Fans of Sigurðardóttir’s previous series will spot one returning character, but her appearance is, so far, of passing interest.
As ever, Quentin Bates translation is excellent and his knowledge of Iceland allows those shadows to cast their shape in the way nature intended. I love that he’s left in the ‘ten drops of coffee’ expression. It’s always good to learn something more about this fascinating country and Bates brings you to Iceland as you read.
Verdict: With important themes of family, sibling rivalry, domestic abuse, financial crimes and a tense refugee situation, this tense and gripping novel packs a punch that feels like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Roll on Book Two!
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Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written five crime novels, including Snare, Trap and Cage, making up the Reykjavik Noir trilogy, and her standalone thriller Betrayal, all of which have hit bestseller lists worldwide. Snare was longlisted for the CWA International Dagger, Cage won Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year and was a Guardian Book of the Year, and Betrayal was shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key Award and won Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year. The film rights for the Reykjavik Noir trilogy have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja is also a writer on the Netflix series, Katla. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.