I encountered Chilled to the Bone by Quentin Bates at the “What’s New?” section at Book Depository. I loved the description so much that I asked the publishers for a review copy and they kindly sent me one. The book got a little bit lost on my TBR pile until last week, when I thought I really needed some Scandinavian crime fiction to get me through finals month. It did help.
When a shipowner is found dead, tied to a bed in one of Reykjavik’s smartest hotels, sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir of the city police force sees no evidence of foul play but still suspects things are not as cut and dried as they seem. A Gunnhildur Gisladottir mystery set in Iceland.
When a shipowner is found dead, tied to a bed in one of Reykjavik’s smartest hotels, sergeant Gunnhildur Gisladottir of the city police force sees no evidence of foul play but still suspects things are not as cut and dried as they seem. And as she investigates the shipowner’s untimely – and embarrassing – demise, she stumbles across a discreet bondage society whose members are being systematically exploited and blackmailed.
But how does all this connect to a local gangster recently returned to Iceland after many years abroad, and the unfortunate loss of a government laptop containing sensitive data about various members of the ruling party? What begins as a straightforward case for Gunnhildur soon explodes into a dangerous investigation, uncovering secrets that ruthless men are ready to go to violent extremes to keep.
First of all, I hadn’t read any of the novels in the Gisladottir series before, but it was very easy and pleasant getting to know her. I did not think I was missing something, although I am sure I did, so, if you have not read anything by Bates, I think Chilled to the Bone is a good place to start as any other.
But, what really called my attention is that it is a Scandinavian crime fiction novel written by an English author. There is this big, huge, discussion in literature regarding who can write about what. Although it sounds funny, it was thought for a long time that women could not write great male characters and the other way round. Same with race, ethnicity and nationality. As you can imagine I totally refuse this idea and I think Kazuo Ishiguro has proved that theory wrong with his classically English novel The Remains of the Day. So, when I saw Chilled to the Bone I thought it would make a great and different reading, already being familiar with Arnaldur Indriðason‘s works. Some research after reading the novel showed that the author, Quentin Bates, had spent a long time in Iceland and is as familiar with Icelandic culture as a native could be.
But, back to the amazing Gunna Gisladottir. I was curious about the representation of women detective in Iceland because Indriðason’s novels are very masculine and raw, an Icelandic hard-boiled type. But Gunna is a normal and grounded detective, although she has some big personal troubles of her own, but who doesn’t? Despite being nearly forty, having a team of two detectives who almost-blindly follow her instructions, and being an amazing detective herself, she is questioned throughout the novel for being a woman. Her niece thinks she is an “office police” (p.79) and did not imagine her in the streets chasing criminals and, one of the suspects makes a comment about “Lesbians with hairy armpits […] human rights and gender equality officer” (p.15) I think these issues resonate with most female detectives nowadays, but Bates makes a great effort of making Gunna an every-day woman: she has had some really rough moments in her life, she has troubles, but she arrives at home tired and faces the same problems we all do: Should I cook dinner or just eat something and go straight to bed? She also has a family and tries to balance her private and professional life, but she is not a drunk, she does not live among dirt and mess and she is able to do her job, help her children and have a romantic relationship. I know, it’s great!
The novel also tackles social problems, like good crime fiction does. While investigating the case, Gunna encounters illegal immigration from Eastern Europe, people who chose criminal activity because they have no other option, people who due to the crisis would do anything to keep their job, domestic violence, drug addiction, and how health issues and the lack of national resources can lead you to desperate measures. I think all these problems resonate with anyone living in the Western world, so I think it is amazing they are inscribed in crime fiction. It is a healthy and intelligent way to deal with them and negotiate possible outcomes.
Chilled to the Bone is a high-quality crime novel that I would recommend to anyone who loves the genre. It is dark, but not Indriðason-dark and explores some very interesting social issues. I also had the pleasure of interviewing its author, Quentin Bates, so stay tuned for the interview 🙂