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Archive for the ‘Iceland’ Category

Although she doesn’t know this, Agnes Magnusdottir will be the last BurialRites convict executed in Iceland. This occurred in 1830. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is her story. Convicted in 1828 of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson, burning down Natan’s house and stealing his property, Agnes, along with a young girl, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir and a seventeen year old man, Fridrik Sigurdsson, were imprisoned. Sigga won an appeal and spent her remaining lifetime in a Danish textile prison. Fridrik and Agnes, at some point prior to their execution, were moved to different households to serve out their pre-execution days in servitude. Agnes was housed with District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and their daughters Lauga and Steina. Each was allowed to choose a priest to provide spiritual guidance, get them to admit and repent their crimes and seek the Lord, prior to their execution. Agnes chose Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), an Assistant Reverend who had provided a kindness to her years before.

Burial Rites is really two stories in one novel. There is the historical aspect of the book. In the 1800s, Iceland was under Danish rule. There was abject poverty in the country, as evidenced by the primitive living conditions that Agnes suffered in her assigned home. The weather was harsh and people’s basic needs of food and shelter was barely met. The conditions at prison were inhumane. Prisoners were beaten at whim, had little food, lacked clothing for warmth and rarely bathed, if at all. The description of Agnes as initially seen by Margret, is beyond belief. The Danish monarchy took an active interest in the case and handed down verdict and decrees, which Iceland was bound to carry out.

The second story in Burial Rites is Agnes’. Her history as an abandoned illegitimate child, intelligent but poor, forced to find work wherever she could pulls at the heartstrings. Naïve, a person who has had no close friends or relatives, who has been shown no love or tenderness, Agnes misunderstood people’s motives, not recognizing true affection rather than manipulation. Her changing relationship with Margret, especially, after the initial shock that they must harbor a murderess, is gripping and touching. The bond that arises between Agnes and Toti, his caring, compassion and steadfastness, are remarkable.

Burial Rites is not my genre of book, therefore, you can guess Susan recommended it to me. Once I got into it, I didn’t want to put it down. Kent’s writing is descriptive…the bleak landscape of Iceland, especially in winter. The characters are intriguing, District Officer Jonsson and his family, Natan, Fridrik, Sigga, Toti all evolve skillfully through Ken’s lens. Kent juxtaposes man’s inhumanity to man against man’s compassion to his fellow man.

Burial Rites is a great book discussion book as well as a good book for your own enlightenment. It can be a fast read or you can slow down and savor the language and think about humanity. That choice is yours.

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ReykjavikNightsThe year is 1974 in this Inspector Erlendur series prequel. Erlendur is a new traffic cop on the night shift driving around with two partners. Called to a domestic dispute, Erlendur is reminded of a homeless alcoholic named Hannibal who drowned in a nearby pond the previous year. It was thought he was drunk and accidentally drowned. Erlendur is intrigued by unsolved cases, especially disappearances. Having met Hannibal several times on his beat, on his own time Erlandur begins looking at the police files regarding the drowning and searching for clues. As he talks to more and more people, relatives and fellow street people, he gains some knowledge of Hannibal and his life.

Erlendur also remembers that a young woman disappeared at the same time as Hannibal’s drowning and has not been heard from since. She apparently was out drinking with some friends, left the bar and never made it home. Erlendur begins investigating this disappearance as well, talking to her friends and her husband.

Reykjavik Nights is not as riveting as previous Erlendur books, nor is it as dark. However, young Erlendur is still a solid character, socially awkward, a loner, driven even then. He’s more of a Columbo-like character, always coming back with another set of questions. Readers gain some insight into Erlendur’s character and his entrée into criminal investigation. They get a smidgen of a taste as to why he is obsessed with disappearances. His police partners play minimal, more comical roles in this foray. There is a hint of romance, as well.
At the end, Erlendur meets his future CID mentor, Marion Briem, who plays key roles in his investigations. Erlendur fans as well as readers of Icelandic mysteries and police procedurals will devour the entire series. You can begin with this book or the initial first book in the series, Jar City. It doesn’t matter. You’ll soon become a fan. I read somewhere that Indridason wants to write a series of prequels and I, for one, wouldn’t mind learning about those intervening years, from young cop to seasoned veteran.

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JarCityA man is found murdered in his basement apartment, head cracked open, and Inspector Erlendur is assigned the case. The only clue: a handwritten, three word note found on the body. The murder weapon? A bloody glass ash tray is found at the scene, as well as blood found on the corner of an overturned coffee table. The motive? Unknown. In searching the apartment, Erlendur finds a blurry photo of a graveyard headstone pasted under a desk drawer. What the note and photo mean baffle Erlendur and his team, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg.

As you may know, whenever I go to a new mystery bookstore, I ask for a must read recommendation. I went to the Mysterious Bookshop in lower Manhattan because I thought they had a good selection of pulp mysteries. Wrong! But I asked my question. The first bookseller waffled and started pulling all different types of mysteries off the shelf-none even close to the police procedurals/legal dramas I named for him.

The second bookseller when straight to Jar City; no hesitations. It was right on. Erlendur is a person. He is long-time divorced, has no relationship with his 20-something son and a very strained relationship with his drug addicted daughter. In some respects he’s the Icelandic version of Columbo; sleeps in his clothes and always looks rumpled. He’s persistent in the face of co-worker doubt. And, his far-fetched theories typically pan out.

Indridason takes Jar City into avenues not anticipated by the reader after learning about the murder, that is the investigation of a death occurring 40 years earlier. Iceland and its natives provide a very unique backdrop for this mystery.

Jar City won the Nordic Crime Novel Award and its sequel, Silence of the Grave, which I recently read, won both this award and the Gold Dagger Award. It’s nice to find a new mystery author with a unique style and not too many books in the series to catch up on. With only six or eight books, I can definitely keep up. So, if you’re looking for a good rainy mystery (it seems they were going through their version of Noah’s flood), Jar City and Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason.

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