Since the first Stella Blómkvist book was published in 2007 there have been twelve novels, as well as a popular television series featuring the author-protagonist. Nonetheless, the identity of the Icelandic author has remained an enigma, and continues to be so with the introduction of the straight-shooting Reykjavík lawyer to an English audience.
In Iceland, Murder at the Residence was Blómkvist’s return after a six-year hiatus and, according to the publisher, signalled a shift towards a darker tone. Those who can’t read Icelandic will have to take their word for it, but if Bates’ translation is an indication, they’re right.
Blómkvist’s writing is biting, hard-boiled noir in the Raymond Chandler tradition. Stella is author, narrator and guns-a-blazing leading femme fatale with the wry voice of Philip Marlowe and the same love for whiskey. Likewise, Stella would be at home in a Frank Miller graphic novel. She is every bit as bold and gutsy as a Sin City heroine, bar the gratuitous violence. Morally ambiguous, sexually adventurous, outspoken, cocky and undiplomatic, you’ll love this ‘foul-mouthed nymphomaniac who revels in the dregs of society’ and take pleasure in her ability to ruffle the feathers of those in power.
Crime-fiction readers understand that if multiple plot lines exist, they will most likely intersect at some point. The important question to ask is whether the author brings them together in a deft and surprising way. Blómkvist juggles a slew of subplots that could easily become convoluted or confusing, but despite two revelations that only exceptionally observant readers might anticipate, they are mostly unpredictable and tied up neatly in the end.
The first is the disappearance of Ilona, a dancer at the El Dorado strip club. Stella is asked to investigate by Ilona’s friend Dagnija. But Stella is in high demand. Robertas, a drug smuggler, and Hákon Hákonarson, a dying man looking for his lost daughter, also need her help. Meanwhile, one by one, influential men from a close circle of friends are killed off. Events are set against the backdrop of Iceland’s 2009 bank crisis, a volatile period in the country’s history. Protesters occupy the front of the parliament building, calling for ministers’ resignations and new elections, and Freyja Dögg Hrólfsdóttir, a protester and politician’s daughter, is injured, resulting in yet another case for the intrepid lawyer.
Fused into the characters’ stories are the realities of sex trafficking, misogyny, the illegal drug trade, corruption, greed and, inevitably, the abuse of power. The author’s sound understanding of politics and law underpins the complexities of the narrative without dominating it.
Those unfamiliar with Icelandic names could find the dizzying cast of characters challenging, but here Stella is the star – a breath of fresh air, albeit with a nippy bite. Also worth mentioning are the semi-philosophical one-liners attributed to Stella’s mother that often conclude chapters on a sardonic note; e.g.: ‘Feminine intuition is the smoke alarm of the soul, as Mother said.’ Let’s hope more chapters of Stella’s story are lined up for translation, and perhaps we’ll even meet the infamous ‘Mother’ one day.
Reviewed by Sonja van der Westhuizen
MURDER AT THE RESIDENCE
by Stella Blómkvist
Translated by Quentin Bates
Published by Corylus Books (2023)
September 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Sonja van der Westhuizen is a freelance reviewer, language practitioner and graphic designer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes reviews for Crime Fiction Lover and South African magazines and newspapers in English and Afrikaans. She is also a judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award, in the debut novel category, and an avid reader and supporter of translated crime fiction.