Crime fiction readers who have experienced the works of Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and/or Eva Björg Ægisdóttir will have noticed that these Icelanders seem to have an innate ability to write about the darkest of subject matters without straying into gratuitous violence or salacious detail – all while managing to maintain the deep emotional resonance and pillar of morality readers of the genre desire. That national trend continues with The Commandments, the first novel from Óskar Guðmundsson to be translated into English.
In The Commandments, Óskar Guðmundsson tackles the endemic scandal of child abuse that has swept through the world’s religious institutions. He does so without pulling any punches and specifically focuses on the long-term effects this type of betrayal has on its victims.
Salka Steinsdóttir is a former detective taking an extended leave to deal with some personal matters when she gets a request from a colleague at the Akureyri division to assist on a new investigation. It is felt that her insight would be valuable as she had previously investigated the victim – Hróbjartur, a parish priest – after an unsuccessfully-proven claim of abuse years prior. Now it was looking like someone was taking justice into their own hands.
Faced with a local police chief who is less than friendly and a temporary partner who has never worked a violent crime case, Salka sets out to uncover the truth behind Hróbjartur’s murder. That path leads her to several other accused clergy and as the victims continue to fall, it’s clear they have a serial killer in their midst. The group of boys who made the original accusations become the prime suspects, but as Salka digs deeper in to the past, the disappearance of another boy years earlier lingers as a thread that must be tied off.
Meanwhile, facing an impending divorce, Salka spends some isolated time fly-fishing when she meets Magnús, a fellow police officer who strikes her fancy. However, juggling a new relationship and a high-profile criminal investigation proves to be challenging. Especially since Salka hasn’t yet signed those divorce documents.
Óskar Guðmundsson allows his story to unfold in natural order. By varying the chapter lengths and strategically placing the various investigative reveals, he lures his readers into reading long into the night. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Guðmundsson understands that anything he writes on the page would pale in comparison to the horrors created in the reader’s own imagination, so he provides just enough details to haunt the reader while keeping the worst offences off the printed page.
This is also an author who is skilled at providing enough distraction – and possible suspects – that even the most seasoned crime-fiction reader will be faced with surprises at the conclusion. And yes, surprises – in the plural – is correct here.
The Commandments is a solidly-written crime novel that will stay with readers long after they turn those final pages. When faced with the legacy of abuse, are there ever really any good solutions?
As with any translated work, a nod must be given to the person faced with that task. Here Quentin Bates – a seasoned translator and author of his own Icelandic crime novels – proves again to be one of the best in the business. Bates presents writing that is naturalistic and easy-to-read while also allowing the “voice” of Óskar Guðmundsson to remain present at all times.