Category: Book Blog Posts

The Fascination by Essie Fox

The Fascination by Essie Fox

“Fascination”: An irresistable or very strong attraction,
that makes something very interesting.”

Sparked by my fascination with the 2003 HBO series “Carnivale”, I’ve long been curious about travelling shows with “freakish” exhibitions, snake oil salesmen who sell elixirs, tonics and tinctures, and unusual museums. Although “Carnivale” only lasted two seasons, it made quite a lasting impression on me. Since “The Fascination” creates a similar world, I was very glad that Orenda Books asked me to join the blog tour.

Essie Fox’s irresistible book is set in Victorian England. It revels in the tawdry glamour of county fairs, London’s own “museums of curiousities” and West End theaters, and the people who live inside these worlds. Fox lovingly explores what it means to be different or unusual, a target of revulsion or an object of adoration. This inventive book and its cast of richly drawn characters captivated me from the first chapter.

Author Essie Fox

At its core “The Fascination” is a story of family; three families in particular. Firstly, the sadistic and fearsome Lord Seabrook, who lives with his orphaned grandson Theo. Theo is terrified of, yet extremely curious about, Seabrook’s ghastly private museum of “anatomical freaks”. This museum holds a dark secret that will have a far-reaching impact on Theo and those he loves. Then there are the Lovells, twin sisters Keziah and Tilly (no longer identical due to injuries inflicted by their drunken and abusive father Alfred). He exploits their appearance to shill his “patented” elixir at county fairs. Lastly, the travelling family who lives under the benevolent rule of The Captain, who describes himself as “a musician of the itinerant persuasion.” The Captain and his family put on theatrical performances in the towns they visit that pique both the wonder and revulsion of their audiences.

Lovell brings Keziah and Tilly to the Brocas Summer fair, where the Captain and troupe are also appearing. There, they run into Theo, who mistakes Keziah for a “sprite or a mermaid”. Keziah eventually reveals to Theo:

“Tilly and me have realised that we must seek a different life. We cannot bear to go on acting out our pa’s immoral lies … or to face the other dangers he’s now bringing to our door.”

Later that night, in an inebriated rage, the father catches the twins trying to make their escape and beats them almost to death. The next morning:

“looking like some mad King Lear, he raised his head and bellowed out to all the other fairground wagons: ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless daughter, and I am cursed with two of them. Two wicked girls who plot and scheme to betray their loyal father. Who will take them off my hands? ”

The Captain, hearing this, makes a “heads or tails” bet with Alfred; if Alfred wins, the Captain “takes the daughters off his hands” and pays Alfred a small fortune. It’s no surprise that the Captain loses the bet; the coin he asks for from a passing urchin is his own, the urchin chooses heads for Alfred, and of course, both coin sides are heads. Keziah and Tilly join the Captain and his family on their boat on the Thames.

The stories of Keziah and Tilly, Theo and Lord Seabrook, and the Captain are intertwined in ways that are slowly yet deliciously revealed as the book unfolds. Members of a family are not just tied by blood, but also by love, hatred, jealousy, sorrow and retribution. Since all of Fox’s unique characters are masterful creations, I was completely invested in their respective fates. “The Fascination” kept me entranced until the very end, when there is yet one more surprise in store for the reader.

In the intricate and dazzling universe that Fox has created, the sins of the past are eventually brought to light. If you’re a fan of the strange, macabre, and unusual (based in part on historical places and events), “The Fascination” will hold you in thrall as it did me. Its message of acceptance of those thought to be odd or extraordinary is as important today as it is in this long-ago world.

Incidentally, some of the visuals that inspired Fox can be found on her website.

Fox also thoughtfully includes a bibliography that includes such intriguing titles as “Strange Victoriana”, “Morbid Curiousities”, “Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination”, and “The Unnatural History Museum”. I’ve added all of these to my “to be read” list; a testament to the lure of the ravishing world that is unveiled in “The Fascination”.

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Toxic by Helga Flatland

Toxic by Helga Flatland


Translated by Matt Bagguley | Published by Orenda Books.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Leo Tolstoy

I thought about this quote as I read “Toxic”; the terrifying new novel by Helga Flatland. Flatland weaves Norwegian folklore and song into her story to talk about women, past and present, who have flouted convention and tradition. It’s a masterful way to introduce the book’s main theme: the fate of women who don’t obey the rules. Flatland prompts the reader to wonder whether they bring down retribution on themselves, or are they victims of outdated social conventions?

Photo of author Helga Flatland.
Norwegian author Helga Flatland

Flatland evokes a feeling of dread as the story unfolds through the eyes of two characters: Johs, who runs a dairy farm with his parents, brother Andres and his family, and Mathilde, a teacher in Oslo. For many years, Johs’ family lived under the thumb of his (now dead) sadistic and self-absorbed grandfather Johannes. He tormented his wife and grandsons; once trying to burn down a house with his wife in it. Johannes was also a master fiddler who played traditional Norwegian folksongs. The music he played was based on tales of “disobedient” women such as Signe Skuldal, doomed because she dared to refuse the suitors her parents had chosen for her:

“Denied the chance to choose a spouse / Signe longed for some way out / and when they searched the following day / her corpse was found in Skuldals lake.”

Johannes’ daughter, Johs’ “Mum”, is just as frightening. Johs and Andres are so scared of her that she can bend them to her will merely with the twitch of an eye. The family works on the farm together in a state of fear and resentment, combined with the isolation of the covid epidemic.

The book then turns to another “disobedient woman”, Mathilde, who was raised by a women she also refers to as her “Mum”. Mum is actually Mathilde’s grandmother who took her in after her parents were killed in a car accident. This Mum tells Mathilde:

“No traditional gender patterns in that house,’ Mum will often say about my parents, ‘your mother changed the tyres, and your father did the laundry.’ ‘Did she really change the tyres on the car?’ I asked her a year ago. ‘No, perhaps not that exactly,’ said Mum, ‘it’s more like a metaphor for everything else she did, she was incredibly practical.’ “

Mathilde is self-absorbed, reckless, and has a dangerous obsession. She is having an affair with Jakob, one of her students. She shamelessly carries on with him and thinks about him constantly. However, her fantasies about a happy future with Jakob are destroyed when someone informs the school about the affair and Mathilde is fired. Her defensiveness and lack of guilt in her meeting with the principal make it clear that Mathilde cares nothing for the consequences of her actions.

To escape Oslo, Mathilde moves into a cottage rented from Johs and his family. Her impact on the family is profound; Johs and the married Andres desire her; their ferocious Mum doesn’t trust her from the moment she arrives. As we soon learn, Mum’s instincts are justified. Mathilde, as usual, acts as she pleases without any care for others.

The characters are expertly drawn, with distinctive traits and personalities that draw the reader into their lives. It’s no accident that both Johs and Mathilde have a “Mum” but the contrast between the two mothers could not be more apparent. It’s fascinating to speculate how each “Mum” influenced and shaped their respective children. The use of the first-person voice for Johs and Mathilde also works extremely well. We get to know them and the people around them from different viewpoints that make us question how much is true and how much is distorted.

What fate awaits Mathilde as she lands in the midst of this equally dysfunctional family? Well, as William Faulkner wrote ““The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Past meets present in “Toxic” in so many unsettling ways, up until the book’s conclusion. I’d also like to mention the excellent translation by Matt Bagguley; it can’t have been an easy task to capture the subtleties and undertones of such a complex and absorbing book. “Toxic” is a superb and sinister novel and I look forward to reading Flatland’s other books.

Please buy/order this book at your local independent bookstore! To find yours, visit Bookshop.org and Indiebound in the US or Indie Bookshops in the UK/Ireland.

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Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen

Thirty Days of Darkness by Jenny Lund Madsen


Translated by Megan E. Turney | Published by Orenda Books. Now in paperback!

About 20 pages into Madsen’s “Thirty Days of Darkness”, I began to harbor a strong dislike of her main character, esteemed (but not best-selling) Danish author Hannah Krause-Bendix. She’s a judgmental snob who believes that commercial success is beneath her; a two-time nominee for the Nordic Council Literature Prize who has never received a bad review. What does she have to be so bitter and unhappy about? Little did I know how much my opinion of Hannah would evolve in Madsen’s fresh, unusual and satirical take on the Nordic Noir.

Author Jenny Lund Madsen, Winner of the Harald Mogensen Prize for Best Danish Crime Novel of 2020

Madsen amusingly describes Hannah’s literary efforts in just a few sentences:

“She writes the kind of literature in which an old man takes a sip of coffee, then stops to think for about forty pages, before taking another sip. By that point, it’s not only the coffee that’s gone cold. So have most of her readers…Hannah’s readership is as small as it is elite – despite her literary recognition, she is still an author only by the grace of arts council funding.”

Hannah is writing a new book and is completely stuck; she’s fed up with her editor Bastian and herself in equal measure. Plotting out a love story is no mean feat when you’ve never been in love and you don’t believe in plots. She descends from her ivory tower and uncharacteristically decides to attend a book fair. At the booth with her books, she attacks the poor intern as an “illiterate moron”. To make things worse, Hanna’s bête noir, wildly successful crime writer Jørn Jensen, is speaking at the fair. She despises him and his commercial success and thinks he is the “world’s worst crime writer”. She tells him “any idiot can write a book like this in a month” and as I hoped he would, Jensen challenges her to do it. Hannah must accept.

Hannah needs some help to end her writer’s block and win the challenge. Her editor recommends a trip to the sparsely populated fishing town of Húsafjörður in northern Iceland, where he knows someone with rooms to let. Hannah is apprehensive about spending an entire month in a country she has never been to and whose language she does not speak. Upon arriving in Húsafjörður, she immediately regrets accepting Jensen’s challenge. To add to Hannah’s sense of isolation, her host, Ella speaks no Danish and can only write a little English. Their communication is difficult, which only adds to Hannah’s angst. What the HELL is she doing here and how will she survive the seemingly endless dark mid-winter days?

Luckily for Hannah, (and the reader) there are sinister goings-on in Húsafjörður. A dead body is found in the water; it turns out to be Thor, Ella’s nephew. Hannah goes to the wake with Ella and as is her habit, finds herself in turn sympathetic, self-conscious, and inevitably irritated.

“The house radiates death. Hannah has noticed that when someone dies, an air of
mystery suddenly develops around them, resulting in a bizarre desperation among
those left behind to learn more about the deceased person. ”

After a chat with Viktor, the local policeman, her own curiosity about Thor’s death is awakened; was it an accident, or something more sinister? According to Viktor, Thor can’t swim and never goes near the water. While looking for clues along the shore, Hannah runs into a homeless man, Gisli, who unwittingly leads her to what looks like the murder weapon. Later, someone fires a shotgun into Ella’s house and Hannah is ridden with guilt that it might be due to her investigative efforts. To add to Hannah’s troubles, the much-despised Jørn Jensen unexpectedly arrives in town. Hannah suspects he’s there to thwart her efforts to win the challenge.

As the body count grows in this frozen place, Hannah begins to thaw. She starts to care about the people in the town, particularly Ella, Viktor and his wife Margrét. But how well does she really know them, and who can she trust? Every conversation, every question, appears to point to a solution whose roots lie deep in Húsafjörður’s past.

Just as Hannah’s efforts to probe the truth about the drowning had a profound effect on her, my feelings about Hannah changed until by the end, I came to love and admire her. When she finally discovers the truth, it’s as shocking as it is satisfying. Madsen has written a mystery that beautifully blends satire with intrigue. What reader could ask for more?

Please buy/order this book at your local independent bookstore! To find yours, visit Bookshop.org and Indiebound in the US or Indie Bookshops in the UK/Ireland.

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Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist

Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist


Translated by Quentin Bates | Published by Corylus Books.

Right after I finished this marvelous book, I posted on Twitter “I just read ‘Murder Under the Midnight Sun’ and now I’m sure: Stella is who I want to be when I grow up.” (Since the character and the author share the same name, to avoid confusion, I will refer to the author as “Blómkvist” and the character as “Stella”). She’s such a great character: fearless, scary smart, and not afraid to go after what she wants. All Stella needs to keep her on track is her beloved daughter Sóley Árdís, her trusty silver steed and the warmth of that amber Tennessee nectar.

Her new case seems like an impossible task; a British businessman comes to her with his sister’s deathbed request to track down her daughter Julia. Julia vanished a decade ago while motorcycling in Iceland. Of course, the five million krónur fee is quite an incentive and nothing is impossible for Stella! As Stella retraces Julia’s journey, she discovers that the police investigation missed critical witnesses and relevant information. She locates a couple who traveled with Julia for a few days, and they show her a photo that provides a critical clue.

The mysterious Stella Blómkvist

Mysteries seem drawn to Stella, or is it the other way around? Another one reveals itself while she is shooting a feature on “well-known women on Iceland’s ice caps” for her producer pal Rannveig. Stella falls down a crevasse and finds a frozen arm with a distinctive ring on one finger sticking out of the ice. This becomes a big news story; “The Ring of Death found in an Icelandic glacier”. Then, Rannveig’s father, Thorsteinn Rögnvaldsson, and her best friend are found murdered in a church that has been set aflame; and Rannveig has no idea why they were together or why they were killed. Stella’s got ties to this one as well; her reporter friend Máki was using Ranveig’s father as a source on a news story that could reveal secret information about espionage in Iceland during the Cold War.

As Stella digs into the murders, her pal Máki reports that his source’s father, Rögnvaldur Rögnvaldsson, has lodged a complaint with the police that the report used in his espionage article was stolen. Stella suspects that the murder of Thorsteinn Rögnvaldsson is closely linked to Máki’s reporting. Can all of these events possibly be related or is something else afoot?

All of this is quite a lot to keep track of, not to mention the question of Stella’s daughter’s paternity, which is also in question. But do not fear! Blómkvist weaves the plot threads together like wadmal* so the reader effortlessly glides from one chapter to another. The author is inseparable from her fictional doppelgänger; allowing her to offer penetrating insights into how and why Stella thinks and acts. Anyway, Stella would be bored if she only had one mystery to focus on!

*A coarse, dense, usually undyed wool fabric woven in Iceland and other Scandinavian countries.

Stella always lives life to the fullest, whether it’s solving a mystery (or three), taking a new lover, or enjoying time with her daughter. I think that’s why she’s such an appealing and enduring character, and I hope that Blómkvist never tires of writing about her. This is not to minimize her other fictional creations; each character is deftly and perceptively portrayed, even the missing Julia. I cared about their fates, eager to see justice done and misdeeds punished.

“Murder Under the Midnight Sun” is as rewarding as “Murder at the Residence” and I look forward to my next adventure with Stella!

Please buy/order this book at your local independent bookstore! To find yours, visit Bookshop.org and Indiebound in the US or Indie Bookshops in the UK/Ireland.

Murder Under the Midnight Sun was first published in English in the United Kingdom in by Corylus Books. Translation copyright © Quentin Bates.

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The Kitchen by Simone Buchholz

The Kitchen by Simone Buchholz


Translated by Rachel Ward | Published by Orenda Books.

Beautiful cover design by Mark Swan

“The Kitchen” is my first read in Buchholz’ Chastity Riley series, and if this compact little mystery is indicative of the other books…I’m IN. I don’t mean to diminish the quality of “The Kitchen” by calling it “compact”; it’s a tightly written murder mystery that is also very thought-provoking about the abuses that women encounter and the helplessness they can feel as a result. Buchhholz’ voice is fresh and interesting; she tells the story with a dazzling mix of cynicism, outrage and a dark mordant humor. It begins with the epigraph “So, tell me now: How far would you go for your girlfriends?” Now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t stop thinking about that question.

Simone Buchholz

The book alternates between the voice of an anonymous woman and the first-person voice of Hamburg State Prosecutor Chastity Riley. Riley is preparing for a sex-trafficking trial of three men who enticed women from Romania to Hamburg, took their passports, and sent them to work in “shabby backstreet brothels in the Kiez”. She’s fiercely determined to bring them to justice.

Riley’s passion for prosecuting human traffickers is contrasted with her more ambiguous relationship with her neighbor, Klatsche: “we’re just two people who keep getting stuck on each other. Night owls, allies. But now and then, romance takes hold of us.” While she’s reviewing her trial notes, she gets a call that body parts have been discovered inside a garbage bag by a bay; a head, feet and hands…but no torso. Shortly after the bag is discovered, Riley gets a call from Klatsche to come home immediately; her friend Carla has been attacked by two men and raped repeatedly in her basement.

Now Riley has two missions: find the killer and see that Carla’s attackers are captured and punished. The two storylines inexorably converge in an utterly unexpected way.

Another bag of body parts is discovered with the same MO—killed by a similar blow, meticulously dismembered and in a neatly wrapped parcel. At the same time, her friend Carla is still raging and bitter over her attack and rejects Riley’s offers of help. Carla’s assault and Riley’s prosecution of the sex traffickers exert a profound effect on her thoughts about the murders.

“And then there are the body parts, about which I couldn’t give a flying fuck. I’ve never experienced that before, not giving a fuck about the dead, not caring who they were or why they had to die. I feel like whatever I do, I’m in totally the wrong key. As if I’m constantly trying to set foot on the ground, but I can’t manage it, either because I get distracted, or because the ground isn’t damn well there, where I thought it was.

As Riley continues to investigate, Buchholz skillfully drops hints about the solution, notably in the passages of the anonymous narrator. These become increasingly disturbing as the narrator relates the abuses inflicted upon her by the men throughout her life from a very young age. The reader gradually (and with a growing horror) becomes aware of the links between Riley’s investigation and the narrator’s stories.

I’m still thinking about the issues raised by this book; philosophical questions about the difference between justice and revenge and how they are meted out. Riley’s outrage and frustration are palpable as the motive for the murders becomes clear and the reader shares her ambivalence about the perpetrators. I’d like to call out Rachel Ward’s wonderful translation; it could not have been easy to preserve all of the irony and tension of the source material. “The Kitchen” is so much more than a great mystery noir and for this reason I cannot wait to read the other books in the series.

Please buy/order this book at your local independent bookstore! To find yours, visit Bookshop.org and Indiebound in the US or Indie Bookshops in the UK/Ireland.

The Kitchen was first published in English in the United Kingdom in 2024 by Orenda Books. Translation copyright © Rachel Ward 2024.

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The Dancer by Óskar Guðmundsson

The Dancer by Óskar Guðmundsson

The Dancer by Óskar Guðmundsson
Translated by Quentin Bates | Published by Corylus Books

“Wow!”. That was my first thought after finishing “The Dancer”, my second Óskar Guðmundsson mystery. I’ve read so many mysteries with disturbed killers at their center; I don’t often expect to be surprised and thrilled. The association of the beauty of ballet with the horror of violence isn’t new, but Guðmundsson’s book is an exquisite balance of both.

Óskar Guðmundsson

The book begins with a harrowing yet precise description of the first murder, setting the reader up for the horrific events to come and giving them a frightening glimpse of the book’s antagonist:

He switched the lights to full beam, so that he could see clearly the thick, dark leather mask that covered the victim’s head. He gripped the wheel with both hands and leaned close to the windscreen. He found himself fascinated by the sparkling light reflected from the snowflakes around the four taut chains hooked into iron rings fixed high on the mask. He was delighted with what he had achieved in designing it.

And after he has achieved his shocking goal…he dances. Guðmundsson’s skillful portrayal of the killer ties his early experiences with ballet (involving his neglectful and cruel mother, also a dancer) to his actions in the present. As his madness grows, more is revealed about his life and the reader sees that he is compelled to dance (on pointe of course) down his murderous path until he is discovered.

The police join the story with the discovery of a corpse in Reykjavik; a man that was thought to have died in a plane crash on a glacier. The autopsy reveals that the man has been murdered. When investigator Valdimar is assigned to the case, he learns that for 19 years, the victim has been paying all of the rent and utilities for a woman named Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir. When Valdimar and colleague Ylfa go to pay Gunnhildur a visit, they are greeted by her son Tony. Something about the pair rattles Valdimar and the hunt begins.

Guðmundsson portrays the killer’s descent into hallucination and savagery with a subtlety and skill that evokes the delicacy of ballet. The author choreographs a dangerous dance between Tony and Valdimar that will continue until the case is solved. But before then, Tony transforms himself into the monster he believes himself to be; all teeth and claws and rage.

He stepped closer to the mirror and adjusted the bloody teeth he had put in his mouth. After trying to get them to stay in place, he took them out and went over to the workbench. He fixed the dog’s jaws in the vice and cut deeper grooves into the bone with a small grinder so that there would be space for his own teeth. He loosened the vice, looked the jaws over carefully and checked the bite as he moved them up and down.

This book gripped me from the start, wondering who the next victim would be and dreading what Tony might be capable of. At the very end, Valdimar and Ylfa get a glimpse of Tony’s childhood as a monster created by a monstrous mother and as I did, feel a shred of pity for the small boy who grew up to become The Dancer. This is Guðmundsson’s triumph.

Please buy/order this book at your local independent bookstore! To find yours, visit Bookshop.org and Indiebound in the US or Indie Bookshops in the UK/Ireland.

The Dancer was first published in English in the United Kingdom in 2023 Corylus Books Ltd, and was originally published in Icelandic as Dansarinn by Storytel
Copyright © Óskar Guðmundsson, 2023
Translation copyright © Quentin Bates,
2023

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“Can I Trust You?”: The Past Is Never Past…

“Can I Trust You?”: The Past Is Never Past…

Twenty years ago, his daughter vanished. He was the last person to see her.
Twenty years to the day, a second girl vanishes. He’s the last person to see her too.

What an intriguing start to “Can I Trust You?”! After reading these words, I was immediately drawn into the story of Axel Petersen, the protagonist of Rob Gittins‘ third book for Hobeck Books. Gittins’ first novel for Hobeck, I’m Not There, is a crime thriller and the first of a new series set on the idyllic, if occasionally sinister and disturbing, Isle of Wight.

AUTHOR ROB GITTINS

“Can I Trust You?” alternates between events in Axel Petersen’s past and the eerily related events of the present day. Petersen, a bookshop owner and specialist in rare volumes, is returning from an auction with a copy of Janet Frame’s “The Lagoon”.

Today is the anniversary of the still-unsolved disappearance of Axel’s daughter, which led to the breakup of his marriage and many years of mental anguish.

“it’s now twenty years to the day that our teenage daughter, Cara, walked out of our house and never returned, twenty years since she disappeared into a void she’s inhabited ever since, a void that immediately and inevitably claimed us too.”

While thinking about Cara, he has a disturbing encounter with a young woman who sits across from him on the train:

“Across the small table, Cara is watching me.
For a moment, sound ceases. For that same moment it’s as if all the air’s

been sucked out of the world. ”

How is this possible? How can this woman have his daughter’s eyes? He later finds a cryptic note in the book he bought, asking “Can I trust you?”; did she write it? When they get off at the same stop, Axel makes a fateful decision to offer her a ride to her destination. They chat a bit, he finds out that her name is Penny, he drops her off and she, also…disappears.

Axel’s subsequent actions provoke the suspicions of the police looking for Penny, especially since 20 years ago, one of them also investigated Cara’s disappearance.

It’s a great setup for an intriguing mystery. The alternating chapter headings, titled “PRESENT DAY” and “TWENTY YEARS AGO”, keeps the reader situated within the book’s timeline. The chapters also switch point-of-view from Axel’s perspective to that of other characters; Gittins skillfully weaves their stories into the narrative as a whole. It’s an interesting choice and affords the reader a fuller picture of events than Axel can possibly know. However, it didn’t help me to guess the secret of these double mysteries, separated by two decades of pain and self-doubt for everyone involved.

As the book draws to a conclusion, the tension builds and the multiple storylines converge. Along the way, I suspected several characters in turn, but came nowhere near the real solution. In other words, my favorite kind of mystery! I enjoyed “Can I Trust You?” not only for its plot, but also the way Gittins used the alternating timelines and perspectives to propel the story forward. I look forward to reading “I’m Not There” and “The Devil’s Bridge Affair’, also published by Hobeck Books.

My profound thanks go to Rebecca Collins, Director of Hobeck Books Limited, for giving me the opportunity to review such an interesting and rewarding book.

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Murder at the Residence: A Mystery by a Mysterious Author

Murder at the Residence: A Mystery by a Mysterious Author

Who is Stella Blómkvist? I’ve read hundreds of Scandi/Nordic mysteries, and had never heard of her, either as an author or her eponymous detective. Although her books have been bestsellers in Iceland since the first book appeared in the 1990s (and has attracted an international audience for the Stella Blómkvist TV series), no one knows her true identity. Ultimately, this question takes second place to the enjoyment of reading “Murder at the Residence”, originally published in Icelandic as “Morðið á Bessastöðum” in 2012. Thanks to the translation by Quentin Bates, the sharp wit and bracing personality of Blómkvist and the twists and turns of the plot work come through beautifully.

The story begins on New Year’s Eve in 2009, in an Iceland that is still struggling from the aftermath of the financial crash. As Blómkvist writes:

A hundred days have passed since the banks collapsed, without a single politician or official resigning. Our slowwitted Prime Minister holds on tight to the reins of power at the cabinet offices on Lækjargata. The banking minister hasn’t stepped down…This was all after the privatised Icelandic banks turned into a scorched earth machine that would sooner or later blow the country up.

Lawyer Stella Blómkvist narrates in a dryly witty voice as she wanders through Reyjavik’s “fun palaces” and drinks her favorite “Tennessee nectar” (Jack Daniels). Stella is very open about her desires and sexuality, but laments that she’s “too old to be hunting at night”. She’s also an adoring mother to her young daughter, Sóley Árdís. Stella is a uniquely drawn character—smart, bold, independent, and untiring in her pursuit of the truth.

Multiple plotlines are introduced, and the pleasure of the book lies in how Blómkvist skillfully weaves them together. In a nightclub, Stella meets Dagnija, a Latvian escort whose friend Ilona has disappeared. She agrees to help Dagnija but has no idea that in her search for Ilona she will confront a world of shady characters and dirty deeds. She meets with a sleazy strip club owner aptly named “Porno” Valdi, who knows more about Ilona’s disappearance than he lets on. (Stella refers fondly to him as “a miserable stinking wankstain”). A dying man, Hákon Hákonarson, engages Stella to fulfill his last wish: find his biological daughter and deliver a mysterious box. The daughter of one of Iceland’s most popular politicians is deliberately run over by a car during a government protest and seeks Stella’s help. The injured girl, Freyja Dögg, wants to sue the driver, senior Central Bank official Bjarni Bjarnason.

To coin a cliché, the plot thickens! The body of Benedikt Björgúlfsson, a well-known financier, is found brutally beaten in a church that was to have hosted the christening of Stella’s niece. Another client arrested for a series of break-ins is found with evidence tying him to Björgúlfsson’s murder. An accused drug runner from Lithuania asks Stella to represent him but his police interpreter is not who she seems, and Stella cannot trust her translation. A couple of detectives, whose shady behavior arouses Stella’s suspicions, try to thwart her investigations. She finds out that the woman who runs Ilona’s escort service is an old flame of hers; is she involved in Ilona’s disappearance?

It all seems overwhelming but Stella pushes her way through with a brash fearless attitude and unstoppable perseverence. Her cynicism is ever-present; when a character exclaims “Thank God!” when hearing good news, Stella thinks “I don’t bother mentioning to her that there’s no sign that mythical old geezer has ever shown his face at Efstakot.”

As her investigation continues, the plot threads begin to intertwine. As Stella tells her business partner, “I hadn’t figured out the connection…But now I see the same thing wherever I look.” Corruption. Financial crimes. Drug smuggling. Robbery. Murder. All part of a gripping mystery that kept me guessing until the very end. We may never know who the author Stella Blómkvist is, but Blómkvist the lawyer is someone whose adventures I want to read more about.

Please buy or order “Murder at the Residence” from your local independent bookstore or bookshop.org!

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