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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