Title – The Commandments
Author – Óskar Gudmundsson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Published – October 2021 (in English translation)
Genre – Crime fiction
The Commandments is Guðmundsson’s third book, published in his native Icelandic in 2019, and the English translation is brought to us by the partnership of new publisher Corylus Books and author/translator Quentin Bates. Guðmundsson is also part of the current team organising the Iceland Noir crime fiction festival.
The opening of the book felt quite disjointed with some scene-setting from 1995, tense and graphic scenes that will make much more sense when the rest of the story has unfolded. Persevere!
Then we meet Salka Steinsdótti, standing in the middle of a stream in northern Iceland. Fishing aside, she has returned to Iceland from London and is in the midst of a divorce from her husband. After a murder which is connected to a case she investigated before she left Iceland she is co-opted by the local police to lead the investigation. This is where the story really takes off as it becomes a police procedural – albeit a dark and gruesome one.
The murder victim is a former priest who was investigated by Salka in 2010 following allegations of sexual abuse. Although he walked free at the time it appears that someone has waited to take their revenge. In order to succeed in leading the investigation Salka must deal with the resentment of the local police at her appointment, the inexperience of the young officer who is helping her and her own emotional baggage. In the course of the investigation – and a race to save other potential victims – she comes across the case of a missing teenager who was last seen with the dead priest in 1995; adding another layer of complexity as she tries to unpick the original, half-hearted, investigation into the boy’s disappearance. This is a small place and everyone seems to be connected – what a tangled web!
The theme – the sexual abuse of young boys by members of the Church – is obviously a disturbing one but despite the graphic scenes at the beginning of the book there is more left to the imagination of the reader than is described, however this isn’t at the expense of tension in the plot.
What the author doesn’t give us, though, is a feeling for the location. The book is a character study with Salka as the contemporary heroine but what you won’t get is a picture of the Icelandic setting.
I knew that the translation would be in safe hands – Quentin Bates is, first and foremost, a an author in his own right – which means that the English version the book is seamlessly translated.
Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.