I’ve been racking my brains a bit trying to put Cold Malice in a box. It is, at its most basic, a police procedural, the latest in a stylish series that has brought us characters like the estimable Gunna and her sidekick Helgi. There are times when I think Quentin Bates has given us a Condition of Iceland novel, with a side plot on populism and the effects of the climate emergency (by the way, turn to page 143 for what is a particularly stylish re-presentation of the climate argument). That said, this is also a book that depicts Iceland for outsiders. And there are a couple of Sliding Doors moments: I’ll come to them later but let’s just put the marker down that this is a deceptively multi-layered novel that isn’t scared to be playful from time to time.
The plot sounds like it should be far-fetched: dead man arrives back in Iceland, people die but the real mystery is a cold case in which the dead man is not known to be an actor. There are exploding cars (well, an exploding car), and aeroplanes and boats and a motorbike. I learned rather more than I’d anticipated about fine art and about how to make sculptures out of scrap. Amongst all this, Bates finds time to give us plenty of domesticity: he tells us that women like men who cook. And some women don’t like ex-husbands who try to throw them out of a window.
The weird thing? It doesn’t feel far-fetched. It’s all, in fact, carefully plausible. Every chapter starts with a description of the weather, which sets the scene and settles us in. And the prose of the novel itself is really grounded. The mundane moments of life have time to breathe and this means that the extraordinary moments don’t overpower them. The cold case, for example, centres around a party: a standard, unexciting party remembered for its arguments and petty rivalry. When a car goes, boom, later on, well why not? That said, I found myself enjoying the book more as it went on and its pace picked up: I felt by then that I knew the characters and was well equipped to engage with the what as well as the why. But the novel is all the better for these different speeds.
I mentioned Sliding Doors. There’s more than one moment where someone, in an instant, can make a life-changing decision. But, we later realise, these moments are earned: they are in keeping with the characters that Bates has spent care describing to us. Even a major twist which gives us a huge dollop of irony makes sense in terms of the characters (and also, in the end, in the resolution).
If that all sounds a little pat, Bates is quite happy to provide red herrings and characters whom we mentally note as potential perps but who don’t appear again. There’s a sense of a world outside the precinct headquarters and our detectives’ families, a world with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Bates does enough at the end of the novel to indicate that Gunna and the gang will get at least another outing: I hope this cult series will continue.
Sweeping, ambitious and entertaining stuff.
Thanks to Constable for the review copy.
You can get Cold Malice here (affiliate link).
Quentin Bates was my first ever guest in the Secret Library slot – here it is ICYMI.
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