#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews DEAD MEN DANCING by Jógvan Isaksen

Dead Men Dancing is the second crime novel by Jógvan Isaksen to be published in English translation – the first was Walpurgis Tide (for which I wrote a #RivetingReview back in 2016). This one dates from 2011, so it’s taken thirteen years to reach us! 

The story in Walpurgis Tide centred on the grindadráp, a long-standing traditional whale hunt; Dead Men Dancing draws on an event from more recent Faroese history: a violent rebellion against the authorities some seventy years ago, which almost descended into civil war and fatally split the community of Klaksvík, the Faroes’ second largest city. And once again, the book’s star is the journalist turned sleuth, Hannis Martinsson. In Walpurgis Tide, Martinsson is reluctant to get involved in investigating the murders at the heart of the story; this time, he urges his reluctant and sceptical editor to give him time off to solve a brutal crime: a man has been chained to some rocks and left to drown. Martinsson is convinced this isn’t the first time it’s happened. He gets his way with the editor and soon has reason to confirm his suspicions – but also to regret his enthusiasm, when his guide on his first foray in pursuit of leads turns on him, and he finds himself in a sea cave from which there appears to be no safe exit:

‘a bullet hit the tank on the outboard motor … I flung myself down in the boat … more bullets whistled in the air above me … that was when the motor died …’

Martinsson has more on his plate than just detective work: his long-term relationship with his police-officer partner and their daughter is on the rocks, following an ill-judged one-night liaison with a nurse. Martinsson’s friend from schooldays, Karl, also regards the episode as a mortal sin and refuses to speak to him. This is more than a personal problem: it’s also professional, because Karl happens to be head of the CID investigating the case. Somehow, Martinsson has to persuade his friend to forgive, forget and help his own investigation. But the unforgiving terrain and mutually hostile communities of the Faroes archipelago pose an even greater danger, as the sleuth edges deeper into the continuing tensions and animosity provoked by events in Klaksvík, which have been inconveniently pushed aside by people in the capital, Torshavn.

The Faroes are a name that some may remember from the days of the shipping forecasts on the BBC, but for most of us they are largely unknown territory. Dead Men Dancing includes a useful introduction to the modern reality of these islands by the CEO of the Faroese Broadcasting Corporation. What would have been equally, if not more useful is a map pinpointing the places Martinsson visits as he criss-crosses the islands in his search for what lies behind this string of crimes. Without such an aid, the details of his travels don’t mean much to the uninitiated reader. I also found the decision to render the Suðuroy dialect into cod Glaswegian English rather odd and distracting. Otherwise, however, this is a fine read, a compelling narrative set in a landscape that is at once beautiful, dark and conflicted. 

Reviewed by Max Easterman

DEAD MEN DANCING

Written by Jógvan Isaksen

Translated from the Faroese by Marita Thomsen

Published by Norvik Press (2023)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman spent thirty-five years as a BBC broadcaster. He was a lecturer in journalism for seventeen years at Huddersfield University and is today a translator, media trainer with Sounds Right, jazz musician and reviewer.


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