For a remote island with a small population (340,000 people) and a miniscule crime rate, Iceland punches above its weight when it comes to crime fiction.
Ragnar Jónasson, Arnaldur Indriðason, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir have all done very well with mystery novels translated into English.
A new addition to their ranks is Lilja Sigurðardóttir, an Icelandic playwright who has published four thrillers in Icelandic. Her 2015 novel Snare is her first book to be translated into English.
In the “Acknowledgements” Sigurðardóttir says of translation: “For someone who writes in an ancient but dying micro-language the importance of being able to reach more readers cannot be described.”
Snare is the first volume in her “Reykjavik Noir” series. The other two books are to be translated into English soon. The last of the trilogy was published in Icelandic just a few weeks ago. (Snare has already been optioned by the Hollywood movie studio Palomar Pictures.)
One of the things that makes Snare different from its Icelandic cousins is that it is neither a murder mystery nor a police procedural. It is a thriller about a drug mule, Sonja Gunnarsdottir, who is smuggling kilos of cocaine into Iceland.
We soon learn that Sonja is not a career criminal, but has been caught in what she thinks of as “the snare” by an unscrupulous lawyer named Thorgeir after her divorce from her banker husband Adam.
The novel is set during the winter of 2010-2011, when Iceland is going through the after-effects of the financial crisis that saw the country nearly bankrupted.
Everyone is in financial peril. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano has also recently erupted and is still dropping layers of ash across the country, adding to the novel’s foreboding atmosphere.
Sonja’s divorce was precipitated by her husband Adam (and their young son Tomas) catching her in bed with her lesbian lover Agla. Now, Adam has custody of nine-year-old Tomas, and Sonja’s relationship with the alcoholic and ambivalent Agla is not running smoothly.
Agla loves the sex with Sonja but hides from any true feelings and insists that despite their affair she really isn’t a lesbian.
To complicate things further, Agla is a former bank colleague of Adam’s and she, Adam and Johann, a third colleague, are being investigated by the special prosecuter’s office for stock manipulations in the lead up to the financial collapse. Agla is being betrayed by Adam and Johann and is facing jail time.
Sigurðardóttir does a good job of incorporating Sonja’s rocky relationship with the heavily conflicted Agla. Sonja’s sexuality is presented unstereotypically and with believable complexity.
Sonja is trapped by Thorgeir and his thug Rikhardur, first because of economic pressure, then because of their threats toward her son Tomas. Sonja’s love for Tomas is paramount and she hopes that she can make enough money smuggling to win joint custody someday.
The other major character is Bragi, a senior customs official at Keflavik Airport who is resisting mandatory retirement. His wife has Alzheimers and is in a home, and Bragi lives only for his work.
His interest in Sonja’s frequent trips through the airport is piqued by his intuition that someone so seemingly innocent must have something to hide.
Sigurðardóttir handles the cat and mouse game between Sonja and Bragi well and the scenes with Sonja and Rikhardur are full of menace, but some of the writing seems flat and the tone is inconsistent.
At first I thought this might be a fault of the translator, but there is one scene in the middle of the book that seems so out of place with the rest of the novel that I think the blame may be Sigurðardóttir’s.
On one of Sonja’s trips to London to pick up cocaine she is invited to dinner with an over-the-top Mexican drug kingpin who’s pet tiger chews a man’s arm off while they eat. The intention is to show how dangerous Sonja’s world has become, but the tone and the comic book horror jar with the rest of the novel.
Apart from that scene, Snare is more character driven than plot driven and the domestic concerns of love, loss and loyalty are handled realistically.
Everything is tied up neatly by the end of the book. Most of the revelations didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but none felt forced either. In the end, Snare is satisfying and brisk, just right as a relaxing read on a long airplane trip. (Just so long as you have nothing to hide from customs agents, that is!)
Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Quentin Bates, Orenda Books