It can be as cold to be an outsider as to be outside. That’s one of the things Lilja Sigurðardóttir is trying to tell us in her new novel, Cold as Hell. There’s a missing woman, and someone who shouldn’t be there, not legally anyway. There being Iceland. But while most of the Icelandic crime thrillers we’ve had on the blog have placed the elements at the heart of things, Sigurðardóttir is ambivalent: the lead character lives in Edinburgh now and is a reluctant visitor to her late father’s homeland. It isn’t just her: nothing is quite right for anyone, from loner Grímur’s disgust of bodily hair to the notion that this sort of food is ‘fit only for savages’. Men are brash and women ‘never gave way in traffic’. The water is sulphuric.
It seems at times that the only thing that Sigurðardóttir is fond of Iceland for is that it can symbolise isolation. Most of the characters are on the periphery, because they are lonely, or a refugee, or in an abusive relationship, or they didn’t get the social care they needed, or because they couldn’t find somewhere else to call home, or because they quite like it that way. This is a collection of, in the main, individuals. They are not in settled relationships or pillars of any community.
And yet, even for these outsiders, there are ties that bind them into…what? Not a community, that’s for sure. These threads are familial, financial, legal, inter-generational and psychological. They are not, in the main, threads that are affirming. One of the character rolls around in the money she requires. That isn’t normal, but is this bunch really that atypical, asks Sigurðardóttir. Most of us have ties a bit like that. How different are we from these alienated wretches?
Put that way, it all may seem that Sigurðardóttir is painting a hopelessly bleak picture. A character sleeps with someone just to be able to place spyware on his computer. They get assaulted in the lift of their hotel. The atmosphere matches the sulphur in the water. But, just like Sigurðardóttir’s previous novels, Cold as Hell gives us glimpses of warmth despite its author’s reluctance. Part of the reason for that is that the main protagonist is half-English and her inner thoughts (as translated exquisitely – as is the whole novel, of course) by Quentin Bates) are idiomatic. More important is that none of the characters is especially ground down, not as much as they could be. As a result they are making plans and hiding from the police and cleaning the communal areas of their apartment building and committing murder. They are odd, they don’t belong but they still have their agency. Maybe they aren’t wretches after all? But allied to fine, nuanced characters is that Sigurðardóttir knows how to tell a hell of a story. From the first sentence, with its throwaway setting of a lava field and the involvement of a body in a suitcase, we’re hooked. Short chapters, changes in narrative focus, planes, white collar crime, genuine tension, a veneer of unease and some welcome guest characters from previous books: Cold as Hell is riveting, thought-provoking and the ideal start for a new series.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.