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the flatey enigma

16 july 2017

I read The Flatey Enigma by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson last fall, for my website cid, on detective-inspector novels. But Viktor Arnar's book is only obliquely a detective-inspector novel – only partially a police procedural at all. Still, Viktor Arnar's work shares themes with novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson. And The Flatey Enigma does follow a police investigation, with legwork and forensics and the interactions of an ad hoc team of detectives.

However (spoilers ahead!), these investigations turn out to unearth no murders at all. The first corpse to be found (in the year 1960) is that of Danish philologist Gaston Lund, wasted away to bones on the island of Ketilsey, in the west fjords of Iceland. The professor had died of exposure, and the island is so remote that somebody must have left him there to die.

The second (and final) corpse is that of a nosy reporter named Bryngeir who has come to the island of Flatey to look into Lund's death. The reporter soon finds himself knocked on the head, drowned, and ritually disarticulated.

Meaty stuff for any Krimi fan, but come to find in the end that Gaston Lund had simply been forgotten on the island by an Alzheimer-suffering boatman, and Bryngeir had fallen into a well accidentally. After which, a delusional deacon had committed the atrocities on Bryngeir's body, but long after the reporter would have been able to perceive them.

In other words, The Flatey Enigma is a murder mystery without a murder. Or rather, no murder in the present. One long-buried killing comes to light as the recent deaths are investigated. Kjartan, a young local magistrate, comes to Flatey to look into Lund's death. Kjartan is an ex-con: he'd done several years in prison for manslaughter in the death of a fellow clubmember during a recreation of a Viking ritual. But Kjartan now learns that he was innocent. Bryngeir had been the real killer. This revelation puts Kjartan on a course toward reconciliation with Jóhanna, the Flatey physician who had been engaged to the long-dead clubman.

Kjartan is our focal character, of sorts, but The Flatey Enigma really lacks a center. A Reykjavík police detective named Dagbjartur gets some time onstage as he pieces together elements of Gaston Lund's travels in the Icelandic capital. A couple of other cops go from Reykjavík to Flatey to investigate Bryngeir's death. But none of them is a hero, and the book turns out to be about virtual and shifting communities instead of heroic actions.

This is somewhat surprising, given that The Flatey Enigma is steeped in Icelandic sagas. The 21st century novel revolves around a (fictional) 19th-century puzzle built around a (quite real) 14th-century Icelandic manuscript, the Flatey Book. In codas to each chapter, Jóhanna tells Kjartan another part of the puzzle, and at the end they eventually piece it together. Solving the "Flatey Enigma" had been an obsession of Jóhanna's father, and also of the deceased Gaston Lund.

The Enigma itself may be the weakest element of Viktor Arnar's novel. The puzzle is a cipher based on an anagram based on clues that nobody could possibly guess (in fact, they're pre-guessed for you in each chapter coda). This device allows Viktor Arnar to tell bits of sagas, but in no sustained or interesting way. Possibly the effect is stronger if you have a thoroughgoing background in Icelandic antiquities, but not many Icelandic readers have quite the in-depth knowledge needed. Still, some do, and the lore of heroic times is more alive in Iceland than just about anywhere else.

The whole literary premise gives the novel depth, and connects its copious local color to greater historical sweeps than the mere half-century since its historical setting. As so often, crime fiction can be a pretext for a lush description of local customs. Here, those customs are anchored in a thrilling landscape and a heroic past.

In technical terms, The Flatey Enigma is a little wanting. It winds readers up with an intriguingly gruesome pair of murders. Even though there are slightly too many investigators, we're propelled forward by wanting to know how such eldritch things could happen in this tiny island community. But then when the mystery resolves, it does so by means of a few confessional monologues that explain everything. It's as if there was too much story for the book's plot, and the surplus had to be told, not shown, in a few expository passages. This gives The Flatey Enigma the odd feature of having much of its exposition come at the end. Mystery novels are always a little like that, but most piece together their solutions more continually, so that the final revelations clinch (or twist) one's understanding. But in this novel, the final revelations turn out to be the whole story.

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson. The Flatey Enigma. [Flateyjargáta, 2002.] Translated by Brian FitzGibbon. Las Vegas: AmazonCrossing, 2012.