The Shadow Dist rict BY AR­NAL­DUR IN­DRI­DA­SON



“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.

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