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frozen assets

12 june 2013

"Iceland hasn't had a double murder since …?" "I suppose since Gréttir did his stuff," goes an exchange in Quentin Bates's detective novel Frozen Assets (157). Gréttir of course being the hero of Icelandic sagas of the middle ages. This claim is the more puzzling because in other novels recently, Icelanders have been killing one another at rates that will quickly depopulate the island if nothing is done. But it's the eternal protest of the Scandinavian Krimi: this kind of thing never happens here.

Bates is an Englishman; he writes in English. But long resident in Iceland, he brings considerable local color to Frozen Assets. The novel was widely distributed in the U.S. when it appeared two years ago, and is being widely remaindered at present. I hope all the copies at Half-Price books represent mere overrun, and not rejection from crime-novel fans. It's a thoughtful novel with intriguing characters.

The motive behind the double (and then redoubled) murders in Frozen Assets stems from the financial crisis that blindsided Iceland, and the rest of Europe, in the late 2000s. Bubbly development and cavalier attitudes toward social and ecological infrastructure make for a lethal mix. The corruption of this "fictional, but not entirely imaginary" setting (to adopt Bates's own characterization) is done with a broad brush. One of the more appealingly nasty characters is the CEO of a slimy development firm – who happens to be married to the Minister for the environment! You see, piratical business interests are actually in bed with the government. You see.

But it's good brisk fun, if your idea of fun is reading about people having their arms twisted till they break, coshed on the head, dumped into fjords, and the like. Our hero is Gunna, referred to by the villain as "the fat policewoman." In some ways she channels Frances McDormand in Fargo, though it isn't quite as cold for most of the action of Frozen Assets; plus Gunna is widowed, and her kids are teenagers. But she's deliberate, earnest, and perceptive, and she's not easily warned off the job by the powers who want to protect the bandits and their murderer-for-hire.

Frozen Assets is not a twisty novel, nor a very complicated one. We see the criminals' perspectives as well as those of the cops; true mystery is in short supply. But we get a picture of small-town detection in a nation barely larger than the average American city. When Gunna finds initials tattooed on a drowned John Doe, she sets about looking them up "in the national register that lists the full name, date of birth and legal residence of every Icelandic citizen and foreign resident" (22). That's handy, to say the least.

Bates, Quentin. Frozen Assets. [Orig. publ. as Frozen Out, 2011.] New York: Soho, 2011.