The Shadow Dist rict BY ARNALDUR INDRIDASON
BY ARNALDUR INDRIDASON HARVILL SECKER OUT 18 May TRANSLATED BY VICTORIA CRIBB
“Rarely has the presence of a creaky detective seemed so apposite”
On 10 May 1940, a force of Royal Marines landed in Reykjavik. They encountered no resistance. So began five years when Allied troops – first British and Canadian, later American – occupied Iceland as a way to deny Germany from establishing a military presence on an island crucial to control of the North Atlantic. If we Brits have chosen to forget invading a neutral neighbour, perhaps because it doesn’t sit well with our narrative of plucky resistance to Nazi aggression, Icelanders certainly haven’t. It is, after all, difficult to overlook a period in your recent history when 40,000 US troops were stationed in a country with a population of just 120,000 people.
It’s these events that form the backdrop to Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason’s new series, which sees the era in part through the prism of a contemporary investigation. Why exactly has 90-year-old Stefán Thórdarson, a man who lived quietly and modestly, been smothered while lying in his own bed?
A retired cop in need of something to do, Konrád takes up a case linked to a murder committed during the Second World War, that of a young woman found strangled behind Iceland’s National Theatre in a dodgy area known as “the Shadow District” (hence the title here). In the 1940s, it’s a murder investigated by a local cop, Flóvent, and Canadian military policeman Thorson – his name the anglicised version of Thórdarson – who, we learn, was raised in Manitoba by Icelandic émigré parents.
It’s a killing that, seen from both times, initially seems to centre on “the Situation”, a term given to the Icelandic authorities’ worries over contact between local women and troops, yet gradually it becomes clear this is by no means the whole story.
Instead, as Indridason weaves in eerie Icelandic folklore, money and politics, and a sense of a great injustice having been allowed to stand, it becomes clear this is a book about facing up to the past. Rarely has the presence of a creaky detective – Konrád remembers the National Theatre murder from his own childhood – seemed so apposite. It adds to the richness that The Shadow District, in its passages set in the 1940s, also explores a time when Iceland is being dragged into modernity, having became an independent republic free of Danish influence in 1944.
To be hypercritical, the time shifts may occasionally have you scurrying back a chapter or two to make sure you know what’s really happening, but this is a taut and atmospheric novel. Recommended.