Ridpath, Michael – ’66 Degrees North’
Hardback: 352 pages (May 2011) Publisher: Corvus ISBN: 1848874006
The second in the Fire and Ice series is an intelligent, scorchingly paced, energetic thriller, relying for its effect on plot and character rather than explicit violence or trendy pyrotechnics. Magnus Ragnarson is Icelandic but was bought up in the United States by his (divorced) father after his mother died when he was about 12. He joined the Boston police, but for reasons explained in the previous novel, WHERE THE SHADOWS LIE, he is now living in Iceland – partly as a serving police detective and partly teaching Icelandic recruits about gun violence and US policing methods. He’s quite a cocky, self-confident young man, but nevertheless likeable enough, not least because of his unhappy, mysterious past as well as his dedication to his job.
66 DEGREES NORTH is bang up-to-date, opening with a demonstration in 2009 against the government, whose politicians have allowed the collapse of the country’s banks and rendered many ordinary people broke. At this demonstration, a young woman called Harpa trips, falls over and is helped by Bjorn, a fellow demonstrator. They hook up with a few other people around them in the crowd and go off to a bar, with devastating consequences.
A year or so later, the head of one of the now-nationalised (but still kronerless) Iceland banks is murdered in his house in London. Magnus and his colleagues liaise with DS Sharon Piper of the Metropolitan police to try to find who killed him and why. Magnus finds a connection between this case and the events at the demonstration, and follows up against his superiors’ orders – they are concerned about the instability of Iceland-British relations in the wake of the Icesave affair, in which the British government invoked terrorist legislation to recover money invested in that failed bank by its citizens and organisations (this book is 100 per cent sympathetic to the Icelandic view of these events, incidentally, a view that has some merits but will not be entirely shared by many UK readers).
At the same time, Magus is being urged by his Icelandic girlfriend Inglief to meet his cousin to find out more about his childhood, which might help him not only to come to terms with his past but also to discover who murdered his father some years previously in the United States. Initially reluctant, Magnus allows himself to be prodded, hence beginning not only to recall events but also to discover that there may indeed be an Icelandic connection to his father’s death. The reader already knows a little about past events via some chapters set in the 1930s, when Magnus’s grandfather was a boy.
The story in the first two-thirds of this novel is crackingly told, infused with the author’s love of the sagas and literature of Iceland. Not only are quite a few aspects of the investigation connected to these works, but Magnus often sees his modern-day Icelandic friends in terms of the characters in the traditional stories, about which the author is very knowledgeable. The author also conveys the environment of Iceland in a touching, enthusiastic way – how the old myths are embodied in the landscape, and how the old stories live on in people’s minds: Magnus’s semi-Icelandic, semi-outsider status is in part a device to provide readers with a comparative perspective of the country. Another strong aspect of the novel is the presentation of the minor characters and Magnus’s police colleagues, especially Vigdis, although the potentially interesting Sharon Piper, the London detective, is underdeveloped.
In the end, the revelation of what has been going on is a little far-fetched for me, particularly the twist in the tail. However, the motivation of those concerned is certainly easy to understand, given the situation in which many people, not just in Iceland, are finding themselves today through little fault of their own other than having been too trusting of a deviously corrupt, self-interested banking industry. And at the end of the book, Magnus is left poised to (possibly) take new directions in his present life as well as perhaps to discover, from his own past and from the case he’s just finished investigating, who is responsible for his father’s death. I shall very much look forward to finding out.