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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