Comment • reviews • Nordic Noir • whimsy
Contains a very very very mild spoiler.
Cold Breath is vintage Quentin Bates: it’s a tightly-plotted thriller that goes deeper than a mere description of a killing (or several). On the streets of Reykjavík and in a safe house on the coast, Bates explores themes of identity and bravery, and he sets up an ending that is possibly the bravest twist of all.
There’s some guy, Ali Osman, who has been invited by the justice minister to go to ground in her country pad, guarded by our old friends Gunnhildur and Laxdal. The minister met Osman at a conference for the international elite, and thinks he’s a philanthropist. There are others who disagree with that description, and the Icelandic media get a tip off suggesting that Osman is more interested in people smuggling. Add a few bounty hunters and the mix gets interesting.
‘An Icelandic Murder Mystery’ says the red text on the front cover, but I’m not sure that this is particularly accurate. We are in Iceland, sure, but the nature of the crime is international and it’s the mix of criminal cultures that is the story, rather than the snow and ice. And we know who has committed the murder. The mystery is about the character and nature of Osman (and others) and there is a contrast between his world and the Icelanders’. At times I think that this is a little overplayed, with the Icelandic crime scene portrayed as sleepy and the Icelanders’ culture as innocent and benign, not ripe to be sullied. If we’re not careful, hardman and all round crim Ríkharður Rúnarsson – himself a special guest from the novels of our old friend Lilja Sigurdardóttir – will be playing the part of one of the supposedly romantic Kray brothers of London’s 1960s. But I think we stay just the right side of the line, especially given the context of the ending (did I mention the ending?), but also the exploration of what it is to be brave.
Let’s remember that this is in some ways a police procedural (there are police, and they proceed) but actually our characters spend most of the novel as fish out of water. Gunnhilder rocks it as a bodyguard for Osman but one incident rocks her to her core. Skúli, the reporter, battles depression, a condition that has him constantly wondering whether his work has any value, and yet he (possibly stupidly) puts his life on the line more than once, going after people who have themselves committed murder. Even Osman, who has himself faced danger plenty of times, has new challenges to overcome, one of which is fun – sightseeing involves ‘a lot of rocks and six different kinds of weather’ – but most of which aren’t. In these pages we find characters who inspire us, as well as those such as the minister, Steinunn, who, with a marked air of entitlement, fancies herself as a global player and possibly is, but who is also a terrible human being. There is also a more ambiguous group, guns for hire, who use Facebook for proper old-school coded spy messages and who live on their nerves, knowing that a false move by themselves or others might mean that their colleagues are told that they have ‘decided to go back to school’ aka been liquidated.
With about fifty pages to go, I think that I can see Bates’ game. He is going to have one character talk to another character, and this will have Consequences that will wrap the whole thing up. Bates does exactly what I don’t expect him to do and gives us an ending which reminds us that we can’t wrap the whole thing up, and it is not only the series’ characters that we know and love that will continue their lives, dealing with what has happened within these pages. It’s this kind of feature that elevates Cold Breath above the norm and gives us a thriller that resonates long after the final sentence. Excellent work.
We are one of the stops on the Cold Breath blog tour. Have a look at some of the reviews. Thanks to Constable for the review copy.