Source: Review copy
Publication: 29 October 2021 from Corylus Books
My thanks to Corylus Books for a review copy
Former detective Salka Steinsdóttir finds herself unwillingly pitched into the toughest investigation of her life, just as she returns to the tranquil north of Iceland to recover from a personal trauma. The victim is someone she had pursued earlier in her career – and had never been able to pin down. Now a killer has taken the law into their own hands and meted out brutal retribution for ancient crimes. Salka is faced with tracking down the murderer of a stalwart of the church and the community, a man whose reputation stretches deep into the past, and even into the police team tasked with solving the case. As the killer prepares to strike again, Salka and her team search for the band of old friends who could be either killers or victims – or both…
I first met Óskar Guðmundsson at Iceland Noir in 2019 when he read in Icelandic from one of his works, Hilma, at a Noir at the Bar event. It’s therefore a delight that I am now able to read one of his books in English and I am grateful to Corylus Books and Quentin Bates for enabling this.
In The Commandments, Guðmundsson has encapsulated all the elements that make for a chilling Nordic Noir. It is a dark and sometimes surprisingly emotional story; that emotion catching you unawares at points. He also manages to show us what it is like to live in a small country. It’s not so much that everyone knows everyone else; that’s patently not the case, but still there are so many connections that make it difficult to pass entirely under the radar, especially when you are part of a police force.
Salka Steinsdóttir had been working for the Met in London as a crime analyst and has now come home to Akureyi, to take a break following the breakdown of her marriage. But fate has other plans for Salka and the local Superintendent of Police needs Salka’s expertise after a gruesome murder. He especially wants Salka because she was involved in an earlier case involving the murdered man, Hrobjartur back in 2010. So somewhat reluctantly, Salka ditches her plans to spend her days in contemplation over some deep fly fishing and prepares to go back to work.
I liked Salka. Her history and the reasons for the break-up of her marriage are slowly drip fed throughout the book, but what you get from a sense of her is of an organised woman, used to being in charge who, without any sense of arrogance, knows who she is and what she wants. Any vulnerabilities are tucked down deep and she comes across as tough and independently minded.
The case Salka has been asked to investigate harks back to 1995. Anton has been involved with an amateur dramatics company led by Helgi, a local religious community leader who has created a theatre group to give focus to a group of troubled teens. But behind the façade of religion and good works lies an evil that is so dark it really disturbs Anton. His relationship with the church is shattered and he lashes out at the local protest, after which he is never seen again.
Now that same local priest has been found murdered in his own church, displayed in front of the altar for all to find. It is a vicious and deeply violent murder and Salka quickly establishes that several years ago the dead man, Hrobjartur together with a number of other priests were acquitted after claims of sexual abuse against a number of young boys could not be substantiated.
This story of abuse is not new to crime readers, but here Guðmundsson allows us to feel the full terrible impact of such on the life of at least one of these men, while showing us how positions of trust and privilege get in the way of a thorough and unbiased police investigation. Such is part of the problem of living in a small country with close knit communities.
Guðmundsson shows only too well how easy it is for power to be abused, how simple for those in positions of trust to manipulate and take advantage. The Commandments gives just enough detail for us to realise how horrific these crimes were without becoming too graphic, though the actual murders are pretty horrific. What is of more interest though is the way that he homes in on the mental impact over many years of this type of crime and how that leaves its victims feeling both betrayed and seriously diminished.
The Commandments often makes for grim reading. It’s dark and forceful and the story reaches out and grips you round the heart, squeezing tight as the awful crimes have a terrible impact on the victims. This is a tale of complicity, corruption and retribution that hits hard and spares no-one. I found it sad and sometimes very emotional and that makes for a very powerful read indeed.
The sense of place is strong and well-rooted and Quentin Bates translation is sensitive and portrays the darkness in these souls all too well.
Verdict: I liked this novel, not least because, as I said earlier, this kind of crime is not new, but right up until the end Guðmundsson offers the reader surprises and jaw dropping moments, even as he reveals more about Salka and what led her to try and take a break. Highly recommended.
One of the rising stars of Icelandic crime fiction, Óskar Guðmundsson has been writing since he was a youngster, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that his novel Hilma was published – and was an immediate success, winning the Drop of Blood award for the best Icelandic crime novel of 2015. This was followed by a sequel, Blood Angels, in 2018. The first of his books to be published in an English translation, The Commandments is a standalone novel which appeared in Iceland in 2019.All of Óskar’s books have been bestsellers and rewarded with outstanding
reviews. The TV rights to Hilma have been acquired by Sagafilm. His latest book is The Dancer, which has been published simultaneously as an ebook, audiobook and paperback – accompanied by an original song in which Óskar’s words have been put to music featuring some of Iceland’s leading musicians. Óskar’s talents don’t end there, as he’s also an artist and has held a number of exhibitions of his work.