The characters of Harm, like the other thrillers by Sólveig Pálsdóttir, are carved very precisely from Icelandic rock, but the themes that the writer explores are universal. Once again, Pálsdóttir assembles a cast of people who are dealing with mental illness or who are dealing with a trauma. She demands that we provide sympathy, then that we withdraw it, and finally that we do something entirely different with our loyalties. She deals in the shades of ambiguity in which it is not what we do that counts, it is what we try to do with the mental and emotional resources we have available. Harm is not a long novel but it is a rich one.
Mild spoilers follow.
I’m delighted that the detectives involved in this murder case are ones that we’ve encountered before: Guðgeir Fransson has an authenticity and a moral centre, an inner voice and he understands people. We often get the first two of these in our fictional detectives, but only the best have the third. What that means in the case of Guðgeir is that he will really get to the core of what his suspects are all about. This is particularly important in the case of Pálsdóttir’s writing as almost everyone is dislikable to some extent or another. The friends who go to the Westman Islands and find that one of their party is murdered are at first glance shallow and self-centred. But through Guðgeir, Pálsdóttir makes sure that we don’t jump to conclusions. That someone is shallow and self-centred doesn’t make them a murder and maybe we’re shallow and self-centred too. In Elsa Guðrun, Guðgeir has the perfect foil: she can provide exposition for the reader but she is a capable enough detective to take the case in another direction. Their boss, Særós, is a variant on the kind of detective that doesn’t know whether they want to solve crimes or be a manager. But among the business-cliche aphorisms that she prints out on a regular basis, she seems to find enough time to provide a useful third edge.
So we have a great team with which to solve a puzzle that’s almost incidental. Yes, it’s a murder, and yes it’s important but when we find out who ended the life of Ríkarður Magnússon I am not sure that we are too fussed one way or the other. Instead we have a train of thought, that leads us from a supposedly open-and-shut case, and one in which the most likely suspect is a vulnerable person who is both doing their best and also not behaving in a particularly seemly way, to something quite different. Diljá is a gold digger, who marries Magnússon with the intent of divorcing him and taking his money. And clearly this is not something that society encourages. But as time goes on we come to the conclusion that Magnússon’s riches have not been gained fairly either: who has ruined, or sought to ruin more lives?
Once more, Sólveig Pálsdóttir encourages us to think about power – in society, in families, and in the way that agents of the state go about their business. Quentin Bates’ translation is stylish and idiomatic. This book will pop up in your thoughts long after you’ve completed it. Pálsdóttir continues to be a writer to watch, and Corylus Books a home for interesting and important writing.
Thanks to Corylus Books for the review copy and to Ewa Sherman for the blog tour invitation.