Compelling, absorbing, complex and, most of all, highly readable. This is a crime thriller, I suppose but it takes its time becoming more of a crime story.
Set on a very small island, one of thirty or so (though legends may say more like 3000) forming the country of Iceland, Flatey has a history going back centuries, all of which is recorded in an ancient book to which was later was added a puzzle. - 40 questions to answer, a code to break and all would be revealed.
Many tried and all failed which includes the last known researcher whose body is found by chance on another nearby island. The young assistant district magistrate, Kjartan, is sent from Reykjavik to return the corpse to the mainland.
And so begins the remarkably written tale of how this little matter is entirely connected to the famous manuscript. It may be a very small island but characters abound, many introduced to us as Kjartan is further tasked with identifying the body since it is certainly not one of the locals.
It's a clever novel. Running alongside the investigation is the secondary account of each of the 40 questions as told by the young doctor on the island to the investigator.
Little by little the underlying story is teased out, bits of information given to the reader so that it soon becomes clear that there is connection to many of the main characters of which they were unaware until a second body is found in the churchyard, grossly mutilated but, again, connected to one of the legendary episodes in the great book.
To reveal more would do new readers a disservice. Suffice to say the finale is not what one may have expected.
The translator has done a great job, bringing to life the lifestyle of a hardened people suddenly thrust into the relatively modern world of the mainland. This is 1960 though it may feel like a century earlier. My only gripe is that the editor must be American as quite a few of the words used in translation just don't fit a European country. This is not the fault of the author who has constructed, may I say, an enigmatic storyline, a real find in the usually rapid-paced crime thriller genre. That his story moves slowly in a way which may initially appear unwelcome, once I had got to grips with the names, I really couldn't put the book down. Thoroughly recommended to all crime thriller followers and an author one needs very much to keep on the 'must have' list.
on 18 April 2013
I've read quite a few Scandi thrillers and really liked them. This one however was hard going. First of all there wasn't much of a story, or should I say what story there was wasn't gripping. The book has a slow, flat pace, and little in the way of suspense. The characters are all well observed but none of them is particularly interesting or notable. The landscape and everyday life is also well described and is curious, especially the food, but again insufficient to keep my interest in the actual plot (such as it was). As I say, I'm used to Scandi pace in thrillers and usually find the scenic route of stand alone interest, but in this book it detracted rather than added to the overall experience.
I picked this up just to try a new (to me) author, and the blurb promised the story had links with Viking tradition and historical symbology; always a drawcard for me to any story.
Set in 1960, the story of a body found on a small island off the coast of Iceland, near to the small inhabitated island of Flatey causes a stir. The body seems to have been there for some months; who could it be, and how is it that nobody has been looking for someone missing? Kjartan, the district magistrate's representative is sent to investigate; unwillingly, as he feels out of his depth and welcomes the assistance of Grímur, the administrative officer of the district of Flatey, and Högni the local teacher.
The identification of the body and ensuing investigations by reporters and the police leads to more unfortunate incidents and the story, woven as it is into the Flatey Enigma, a mystery set around the Flatey Book of sagas becomes complex and other-worldly. But that's not to say that it is outside the realms of realism; rather, it is a story that is seen through the shades of life in a small community in the 1960s, in an Iceland that is unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers, and a community which still has living ties to the sagas of old.
This is an absolutely brilliant story. The way of life that these people led is unique, the characters themselves are brilliantly conceived and written of, and the story of their lives and the impact of the death of this stranger in their world is absolutely enthralling. I found myself totally engrossed and could not put the book down. The author's style of writing, if the translation has remained true, is sparse and matter-of-fact. Characters are written of critically and honestly. The story as it unfolds is tremendously clever and very well put together. I absolutely loved this story, and this book and will be seeking out more of the author's works. Totally recommended.
on 25 February 2012
"The Flatey Enigma" is the third of AmazonCrossing's Icelandic novels to appear: it is as different from the first two as they are from each other, and just as enjoyable. It is a murder mystery set in 1960 on the tiny Icelandic island of Flatey, which is still inhabited today, and reminds one inevitably of one of Agatha Christie's country house mysteries where everyone is stranded for the weekend, and one of the guests must be the perpetrator, but with the island of Flatey standing in for the country house. It's not quite that simple, though, because the islanders have boats, so any of the suspects could get on and off the island, perhaps unobserved. And it's got a thumping great McGuffin of a plot device in the form of a mystery surrounding a (real) mediaeval manuscript called the Flatey Book.
I'm really not sure whether Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson wants us to take his story seriously, or whether it's just a lovingly-crafted piece of retro hokum. Either way, it's a great page-turner and tells you a lot about Icelandic rural life 50 years ago, as well as digging up all sorts of nasty things about some of the characters' backgrounds. As is only appropriate, things don't turn out quite as expected, and the island doesn't declare all its secrets to everyone. I liked, by the way, the way the police only play a limited role in the story. It's really an ensemble piece and would make a great play or TV adaptation.
It seems two more Ingolfssons are on the way, which is good news.
The difficulty with reviewing books read as a translation is that you never quite know what you lost by not reading the book in the original language. With "The Flatey Enigma" I was left with the feeling that I lost more than average.
This novel was more in the style of an old-fashioned crime novel or mystery. The ending was a bit more gradual than the traditional ones though, as you come to realise who must have committed the crime. The novel is set on a small, remote, Icelandic island, inhabited mostly by fishermen and farmers, and not many of them. When a body is discovered on a nearby island that is little more than a lump of rock where the locals catch seals, a young man with limited experience is sent to look into it. It doesn't take him long to work out who the victim is, if only because there are a shortage of possibilities, but finding the killer and a motive will take longer. The island is home to an ancient Icelandic manuscript that contains a riddle experts have been trying to solve for years. As the dead man is one of the latter, it's obvious that the manuscript is key to the story. Extracts from it are printed at the end of each chapter, and whilst they initially added historical flavour, after a while, my lack of familiarity with any Icelandic history meant they became a bit of a blur. On the plus side, the normal chapters gave a fascinating insight into Icelandic island life in the 1960s (so remote that it felt like several decades earlier), so the setting alone gave the book a unique feel that makes it worth reading.
The novel itself is quite slow paced, and whilst it did seem to get going a bit towards the end, I did feel it could have been a bit shorter. Having said that, the pace reflected the style of life on the island, so in a way it did suit the novel - not much happens on the island in the normal course of events, and the slow developments of the plot did seem in keeping with the story and the setting! The characters benefitted from belonging to an unusual setting (unless the reader also happens to live on a remote island!), but otherwise, they weren't particularly vividly depicted. Some of that could have been lost in translation though - in places, the language felt a bit clunky, as though the translation might not be exactly what the author originally intended. It also had an American English feel - so a few of the word choices sometimes didn't fit the Icelandic setting.
Overall, the novel is worth a read if you don't mind a fairly slow paced crime novel, with a big historical element. I enjoyed it (although I've given it three stars, if I could I would have given it three and a half) and found it an interesting, if not particularly riveting read.
A very clever crime novel that was very interesting to read.
This fictional story is set on and around Flately island (Iceland) in 1960 (where the author's grandparents lived and he remembers visiting them) when a decaying body is found by 3 seal hunters on Ketilsey - a nearby deserted island.
The corpse is identified as a Danish cryptographer who has links with a medieval manuscript known as The Book of Flatey (this manuscript is REAL and can NOW be seen in Reykjavik). Later in the book there is another death - the story revolves around the investigations into the deaths and life on the island.
Linked into this are 40 long crossword-type clues taken from the stories in The Book of Flatey which have some very GRUESOME stories from Icelandic sagas & myths. There were at least 2 references to Britain - one about King John and another to the the ancestor of William the Conqueror.
The solving of the Enigma is an important aspect of the story and as someone who loves doing crossword puzzles I can well understand the obsession of finishing the puzzle.
The life on the island is well described in a time of little quick communication with the outside world. The DIET of Puffin breast, fermented shark & ray and baby seal fat - not all in the same dish!- is interesting though maybe not one that instantly appeals.
The lives of most of the people are very interlinked and there are many clues to the cause of the deaths on the way - the ending is not what one normally expects - without giving much away - I can say that I liked the ending.
A little note about the translation - it seemed mostly British/English - with a few American words in places eg cookies but it did have a European feel which I thought fitted the original.
This is NOT an ACTION packed book - it is a slow burner - but very interesting and well put together - I very much enjoyed reading it.
I wanted to read this book after having fallen in love with the books by Arnaldur Indridason, another Icelandic writer( whose first book Jar CityJar City [DVD] was made into a film, and is an atmospheric Icelandic thriller.)
This book is really very different. The style is unlike any other Nordic Noir writer I have so far encountered, and I have read and enjoyed quite a few now. That it is so different is not at all a minus, it's just that this book takes a lot of effort to read because it plods along quite slowly for most of the story, and the writing doesn't create any sort of tension. Yet I was never actually bored.
It is set in 1960 on a tiny island in what is known as the Breidafjordur. (I have to say the hardest part of reading Icelandic novels seems to be with the place names. They are quite something, especially when you don't know how they should sound).
As well as all the action taking place in the 1960's, there are passages at the end of each chapter taken from the Flately Enigma. These are are excerpts from the old Viking Sagas and are taken from inside the Manuscripts of the Flatey Enigma and used as clues. These excepts are very bloodthirsty and gruesome. I had to skim some of them after feeling sick.
So the story begins in 1960 with a dead body found by local fishermen, who were hunting seals on a rocky uninhabited island out to sea. The body has lain there for months, and has no face left. Despite this lack, Kjartan,( the man sent to investigate the dead body and bring it back to the mainland ), is able to identify the body because the local priest knows who it must be. A visiting Danish professor believed to have returned to Copenhagen but in fact he never returned home. The clue is a note found in the corpse's jacket pocket. This is a small extract from the "Flatey Enigma" which is stored in the local library usually only visited by Nordic scholars who want to find out if they have solved the riddle contained inside the Engima.
We are introduced to all the various characters who live on the island and they are often colourful and eccentric. At least one person hasn't left the island in 50 years, some hardly ever. It is a very insular place. There are also characters from other parts of Iceland like the female Doctor.
The story moves ever so slowly. As does the pace of life on these islands. The locals never go anywhere in a hurry and they don't really perceive the need to rush anywhere. They eat a diet that has me heaving - fermented fish, fried seals liver with hot sheep's fat poured over, fried puffin breast- but is no doubt very healthy. They are living in an age when their culture hasn't changed too much for a long time, and I thought the book was set at this time of 1960 because of the huge changes modern technology has made in places that were previously more static. Reading the author's notes at he end of the book I find out that his grandparents actually lived on Flately and even as a young child he often stayed with them. He remembers spending the summer there in 1960 and has incorporated his memories into building a strong sense of place into the book. The characters are fiction though and the events in the book did not take place there!
I enjoyed this book, I enjoyed feeling my way into a country I have never visited and is very different from any culture I have personally met.
I enjoyed the story as it unfolds with some good twists at the end that I did not see coming.
A good and satisfying read
on 11 March 2012
The book, set in 1960, opens with three generations of a seal hunting family on trip to an uninhabited island off Flatey, itself a small island off the coast of Iceland. They find a body and the enquiry begins to find out who he was and how he died. The investigation is handled by the local administrative officer and the magistrate's representative and the police hardly feature until quite late on the story. This seems to be a common feature of other jurisdictions but it does take a little time to get used to it for someone only used to the English system.
Flatey is a tiny island with only around 50 inhabitants but the dead man is found to have been a visiting Danish academic so while the local rather low key enquiries are going on, a police officer on the mainland is making enquiries into the background of the dead man. I liked the fact that it was all taken at a very gentle pace - there are so few people on Flatey and very few boats with just the regular mail boat for supplies. Everyone knows everyone else but a lot of people have secrets which may or not be connected with the death.
The police do arrive when another body is found but the book doesn't pick up pace - I liked that but others may not.
The chapters are very short and they all have pieces at the end in italics where persons unknown are talking about the Book of Flatey, an ancient saga, and a puzzle about the book. This is a technique which I am beginning to find a bit wearing - the unknown people talking about something enigmatic which you know must be connected because it's been put into the book but you don't know why so you have to read it all, just in case, even though it doesn't move the story along in an obvious way.
I would have given this three stars as a crime novel but what earns it the extra star is the feeling of time and place, a small community where everyone seems to be at ease. It brought vividly to life for me a way of life that is probably long gone, where life revolved around the seasons and the natural resources, where religion was central to life but it was quite accepted that dreams could be prophesies if only one could interpret them and where elves can be seen if you know how to look. That could have made it whimsical but it just seemed right - it was just part of the make up of some people.
There is also a deep sense of pride in the history and writing of Iceland which shines through.
Reading books in translation can make me feel as though there is something I am missing as I can't tell how much of the style of speech is in the original. The characters sometimes speak very woodenly which brought me up sometimes - they say the most revealing things about their characters and some very serious things that have happened in their lives in an almost casual way which jarred a bit.
I enjoyed it, it bowls along, all of the loose ends are nicely tied up satisfactorily and along the way I had glimpse of closed island life.
I very much enjoyed The Flatey Enigma. Set in 1960 (the book was first published in Icelandic in 2002), some islanders from Flatey, off the west coast of Iceland, find the decomposing body of a man on the islet of Ketilsey during a seal-hunting trip. Kjartan, a magistrate's assistant, is sent over from the mainland to supervise the collection of the body and to find the identity of the corpse. Although the first part of the assignment is easy enough, it proves harder to complete the second.
The first chapters of the book are slow-paced, describing island life on the small, impoverished island of Flatey (1.2 miles long and 1/3 of a mile across). Scraping a living is hard, and through the eyes of Kjratan the reader is given a full account of the ways of life of the islanders, complete with the awful sounding meals they eat. At the end of each chapter is a short paragraph about the ancient Book of Flatey, the earliest written history of the region. A copy of the book is kept on the island but the original is in Reykjavik. There is a famous riddle associated with the book, which many have tried and failed to solve - the titular Flatey enigma.
The investigation broadens to include the Reykjavik police, and soon the book develops an absorbing rhythm, as chapters tell the story of the investigation from two places, with each chapter ending with one of the 40 questions that make up the enigma. The chapter endings, the reader realises, themselves make up a story within the story told in the main novel.
As a crime novel, the plot is well-constructed. The ending depends somewhat on the reader not having been told certain pieces of information, and perhaps one coincidence too many, but that did not spoil the book for me. The historical-cultural story of the Flatey book and associated enigma is both fascinating to read about, and provides a strong motivation to read on to see if it is solved. The main enjoyment of the book comes from the descriptions of a lost way of life in the harsh environments of these islands 50 years ago, and in the mists of time where mythic stories of sagas, battles and bravery were handed down from generation to generation.
1960 - The corpse of a Danish cryptographer is found on the deserted island of Ketilsey off Iceland's coast.
32 year old Kjartan is sent to the neighbouring island of Flatey as government official to work with the locals to establish whether it was an accident or a crime has been committed. In the course of the investigation, he is introduced to not only the islanders and their way of life, but also to the old sagas and stories collected in the Book of Flatey - and to the old, unsolved mystery of the Flatey Enigma. This book, it turns out, might hold the clue to the death of the cryptographer and the subsequent death of a journalist researching the story.
Kjartan enlists Johanna, the daughter of the local specialist on the book, to help solve the enigma and hopefully the murders.
The chapters progress chronologically from the moment the first body is found, but all have an end paragraph that refers to a conversation between Kjartan and Johanna where she explains the answers to the questions forming the enigma. The questions all relate to the sagas of the Flatey book and as such are mostly gruesome Viking stories. It works well for the most part, although I must admit that 39 small stories like that is overdoing it a bit - especially around two thirds into the book where the 1960s murder story is really kicking off and the reader is keen to find out who the murderer is - and how s/he did it!
I really enjoyed the book though. It gave a good description of what life was like on the small isolated islands in the 60s. It was an easy read apart from an initial struggle with the names that are at the same time very foreign and very similar - and there are a lot of them as well as we are introduced to all the islanders - and their little quirks - in the first few chapters.
This is a book in the AmazonCrossing series which has this as its stated aim: "Publishing translations of foreign language books from around the world, AmazonCrossing makes award-winning and best-selling books accessible to many readers for the first time. All AmazonCrossing titles are also available on Kindle." A very good idea and if they choose books of this quality something that we will all profit from.