Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath
Amid Iceland’s wild, volcanic landscape, rumours swirl of an eight-hundred-year old manuscript inscribed with a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power.
A rediscovered saga alone would be worth a fortune, but, if the rumours can be believed, there is something much more valuable about this one. Something worth killing for. Something that will cost Professor Agnar Haraldsson his life.
Untangling murder from myth is Iceland-born, Boston-raised homicide detective Magnus Jonson. Seconded to the Icelandic Police Force for his own protection after he runs afoul of a drug cartel back in Boston, Magnus also has his own reasons for returning to the country of his birth for the first time in nearly two decades – the unsolved murder of his father.
And as Magnus is about to discover, the past casts a long shadow in Iceland.
Binding Iceland’s landscape and history, secrets and superstitions in a strikingly original plot that will span several volumes, Where The Shadows Lie is a thrilling new series from an established master.
There are few books that are so beloved, so read and re-read and analysed as the Lord of the Rings.
Personally, I’ve never succumbed to the massive sequence’s lure. I loved The Hobbit and I loved reading the various sagas LoTR was based on, but I’ve never managed to get further than The Fellowship, but that’s just me.
I can’t argue lineage or speak Quenya but I still count myself a fan. I adored the movies, I loved the back-story to the various characters and am probably the only person who has never read LoTR but who has read The Silmarillion.
You may wonder what tangent I’m on writing this review. The book is called Where The Shadows Lie and not Reminisce about LoTR and Tolkien. But bear with me, all of this will make sense. I promise.
Where The Shadows Lie introduces us to Magnus Jonson, a Boston police officer who discovered some nefarious goings that involved a well-thought of cop in his precinct and a pretty nasty Dominican drug dealer. After a direct attack on his life, his superintendent decides to reconsider a request from Iceland and sends Magnus on secondment to Iceland, to work closely with the police force there, until the drug lord’s trial comes to fruition in the States.
Magnus goes reluctantly. He grew up half in Iceland (till the age of 12), half in the States (till present) so he can speak the language and he’s used to the Icelandic inhabitants’ quirks but he’s not really used to the way the police work there. But more importantly, what he does not expect is the impact moving back to Iceland has on him emotionally. He fondly remembers the time he spent with his father, their talks about the Icelandic sagas and more recently, and sadly, his father’s unsolved murder. He acutely feels his isolation as he has family in Iceland, but no one who would want to speak to him, because of his father. They blame him directly for Magnus’s mother’s death and things did not end well between them when Magnus was there last.
When Magnus arrives in Reykjavik on secondment, he’s hurried off to the site of the country’s first murder in a very long time indeed. A professor has been killed at his weekend home. An investigation reveals that he had been working on the translation of a very old saga, one the world did not know about. A saga about a cursed ring and how its owner failed to throw into the yawning mouth of an inferno and how each subsequent wearer of that ring is cursed.
Magnus tries puzzling out the modern day quandary of the two suspects, characters called Gimli and Isuldur via online forums, certain that one of these two men, one English, the other a wealthy American, had something to do with the murder of the professor. The two men had the motive and the opportunity as they were both huge Tolkien fans, almost rabidly so. They were prepared to do almost anything to own the Saga on which their all-time favourite book is based.
As the story unfolds – pretty darn seamlessly, I may add – the back story of the lost saga is filled in. There are several reveals, plot twists and characters coming clean. I completely rooted for the wrong person to be the murderer (dammit!) and found that the mystery of lost saga and that of the professor’s murder is solved pretty adequately.
What binds the story together is the force of the storytelling, the under-stated bleakness of the Icelandic countryside and the subtle differences highlighted throughout the novel between Magnus the American man and Magnus the Icelandic boy. What was once and what is now. This sense of difference and isolation is magnified when his work colleagues are friendly, yet remote, with the officer in charge of the case being not at all welcoming.
The financial climate is mentioned a few times in the novel, it’s touched on, to indicate that everyone in Iceland is currently suffering, with a lot of people losing their jobs and businesses after the financial turmoil last year. More than anything else, it makes Where The Shadows Lie a very pertinent novel, as the entire story evolves from one person who decides to reveal the saga to the world, through the subsequently murdered professor, as the money is needed to keep a business afloat.
I found Where The Shadows Lie a well written, intelligent thriller novel, teetering on being a complete cross-over for fans of magical realism and urban fantasy with a detective noir twist. Having never been to Iceland, but having seen photos and documentaries, and having read various sagas for school and uni and for nerdy pleasure reading, there is an otherworldliness about the place that Ridpath taps into that lifts this “yet another police procedural” from the mundane to the noteworthy. It’s more than just the subject, the lost saga, that pushes this novel out of the crowd. It’s also the clear writing style and the main character that is noteworthy. We leave Magnus at the end of the novel with a murder solved, a blossoming relationship and a trip back to the States to bear witness in the drug trial he almost got murdered for. But we know he’s going to be back. He’s realised that there are things about his father‘s life that he does not know and that it is up to him to find out what they are. Especially if he wants to solve his father’s murder.
Find Michael Ridpath’s website here. Where The Shadows Lie is out now from online retailers and in all good bookshops.