Friday, December 30, 2011

Scandinavian Noir: COLD COMFORT, Quentin Bates

When 2012 begins, will the global recession be over with? Probably not ... but some things are improving in the United States, it appears, as holiday shopping figures show gains, and a fragile breath of encouragement in the jobs area continues to feed the slow movement toward a better economy.

But if that's the case for one of the most resource-wealthy nations, how much slower will the recovery be in smaller, less well endowed countries? Quentin Bates built his first police procedural, Frozen Assets (Frozen Out is the UK title), on the grounds of the enduring bank crisis in Iceland, where Sergeant Gunnhildur (known to most as Gunna) showed us the reality of a woman's career in a tough field. Bates's second "Gunna" book releases in early January 2012. In COLD COMFORT,  Gunna has been recently promoted from her post in rural Iceland to Reykjavík’s Serious Crime Unit. And wouldn't you know it, one of her first challenges in the new unit involves hunting down escaped convict Long Ommi, who has embarked on a spree of violent score-settling in and around the city. At the same time, an old acquaintance of hers from her hometown has fallen into the convict's circle. And the murder of sexy Svana Geirs, a TV-familiar "personal trainer," is turning out to be embedded in a complex network of sleazy old-boy networks, adultery, and "too hot to touch" political personalities. Gunna's investigator Helgi, on the scene of the murder, asks, "How do you want to organize this, Gunna?"
For a moment she wondered why he was asking her. Being in charge of a new investigation unit was a change that would take some getting used to after the years running the police station in rural Hvalvík, where weeks could pass with nothing more serious than a stolen bicycle. The offer of promotion and the shift to the Reykjavík city force had come as a surprise, and working as part of a larger set-up was already taking some getting used to. Although she had lived there in the past and knew the city intimately, Gunna felt vaguely uncomfortable in Reykjavík. Much had changed during the years she had taken it easy in her rural backwater. The city's pace of life had accelerated steadily for years until the crisis that saw the banks nationalized and the country plunged into a recession stopped progress dead in its tracks. ...

"Gunna?" Helgi asked again.

"Aei, sorry. Thinking hard for a moment. If you try and figure out what the lady's movements were over the last couple of days, I'll tackle the next of kin."
Gunna goes on to speculate that to end up killed by blunt trauma to the head in her own apartment, Svana Geirs "must have pissed someone off, or else she'd ripped someone off." The investigation turns up a much sadder situation in the long run, though. And the continued financial crisis globally is pushing part of it along.

Gunna's connections with both police and criminals serve her well, and scenes of her questioning of the often thick-skulled suspects show both skill and compassion, as well as an insistent pressure to get the job done. Much of Bates's storytelling is through dialogue, and it makes his substantial crime novels into very good reading indeed.

There are also moments of insight, like this one that emerges in discussion between Gunna and her teenage daughter:
"What makes people kill other people?"

Gunna looked up at Laufey, who still had her attention on the screen. "Why do you ask?"

"I'm just interested. Psychology. There must be a reason for it."

"The theory is that there are a very small minority of people who are capable of committing violent acts just like that," Gunna said, snapping her fingers. "Nobody really knows how many of these people there are, maybe only one percent of the population, maybe less. The rest of us are fairly law-abiding. But when these supposedly normal people commit a serious crime, there are all sorts of reasons for it."

"Are they sick?"

"Sometimes they are. Often they are desperate, and normally there are narcotics or addiction problems somewhere behind it all."
The pace of the pages in COLD ASSETS is brisk in terms of action, but the narration, as in these two segments, has something of the flattened tone of a Henning Mankell crime novel, or one by Arnaldur Indridason. In fact, there's an interesting Quentin Bates interview on the very wonderful Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, in which Bates describes his own admiration for other Scandinavian novelists' work -- and his particular fondness for Simenon's classic detective Maigret.

But unlike many of the other "ice" crime authors, Bates doesn't require a translator to English -- he was born in the United Kingdom and, after a 10-year stay in Iceland, returned home to continue his reporting for a commercial fishing magazine. (Gunna's son, rarely on scene in these books, is a commercial fishing employee, so maybe we'll learn more about that in a future book from Bates, like his third one, already titled Chilled to the Bone.) I note the absence of translation to emphasize that the relatively flat, unemotional tone of the Bates books isn't going to be affected by some change of interpreter. Instead, it appears to be a quality of both this author and Gunna, whose quiet strengths come from her determination to do her job and meet the demands on her life fairly, with everything she's got.

No comments: