Ice-Cold Crimes and Oily Villains

The complicated and grief-stricken lives of those caught up in drug smuggling, and greed and racism in the heartless treatment of a group of indigenous people.

Issue #62: Saturday 16 March, 2024

My Reading

Lost in Translation

One of the statistics of my reading which I try to keep track of each year is how many works in translation I’ve read, a measure of whether I’m reading widely enough about other cultures. Often this amounts to only one or two books a year, which is pretty poor going. But in 2024, I’ve been doing pretty well: out of the 18 books I’ve read so far this year, 7 of them have been works translated from other languages: 2 from Italian, 1 from Norwegian, 1 from Czech, and 3 from Icelandic. Mind you, that’s a very European, Caucasian grouping. Clearly, I should try to find and read more Asian, South American and African writers.

Completed Since Last Issue

Reykjavik Noir Trilogy by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

Translated from the Icelandic by Quentin Bates

Covers of ‘Snare’, ‘Trap’ and ‘Cage’ by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

For an island with a very small population—less than 400,000 people, I was startled to discover—Iceland seems to hit well above its weight when it comes to writers, particularly writers of crime and thriller novels, it seems. As Lilja Sigurðardóttir points out in her acknowledgements, if you only have an audience of at most 340,000 adults who can read your language, it’s going to be impossible to make a living as a writer. Fortunately, the quality of the work of prolific Icelandic writers such as Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson, Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir and many others is so good that their books have been translated into English. Quentin Bates has done an excellent job here with Sigurðardóttir’s novels, and apparently he has also translated all of Jónasson’s works, too.

The particular books by Sigurðardóttir I’ve just finished reading form her ‘Reykjavik Noir’ Trilogy: Snare, Trap and Cage. As you can guess just from these titles, the books are all about entrapment and perhaps imprisonment, and that’s absolutely correct.

Because I’m talking about the trilogy as a whole, I don’t want to describe too much of the individual plots for fear of giving away spoilers; but a quick description of the books is that they are top-notch, page-turning thrillers about someone caught up unwillingly in the drug trade on the one hand, and someone complicit in the Icelandic financial scandal on the other.

There are two prominent characters in this trilogy, whose lives are entangled. The first is Sonja, a woman in her thirties with a 10-year old son Tómas. I don’t think we ever discover her last name. The second major character is Agla Margeirsdóttir, a senior executive in an Icelandic bank. Sonja and Agla are in a rather fraught same-sex relationship. They first met because Sonja’s husband Adam was also an executive in the same bank. We discover, however, that Adam, with their son Tómas beside him, one night walked in on Sonja and Agla in bed together. This immediately broke up their marriage. Sonja is struggling with the fact that Adam was assigned custody of Tómas, and so she only gets to see him every second weekend, though she loves him dearly and almost obsessively.

Agla’s problems arise from the fact that in her role in the bank she has been charged with the crime of market manipulation, alongside Adam and other executives. This, it seems, is only the tip of the iceberg and she and they are hoping that their more serious crimes are not uncovered.

All of that is background, which of course we don’t learn for some time. The first novel, Snare opens in an intriguing manner, with Sonja at an airport in Denmark, waiting for a flight back to Iceland. She’s watching the other passengers check in, at first worried, and then relieved when she sees a woman with a particular kind of suitcase. This is all, we learn, to do with Sonja’s plan to smuggle a package of cocaine into the country. How Sonja ended up in this role, greatly unwillingly, is a key part of the story, as are her desperate attempts to escape the snare that she has been caught in, which continue through the books of the trilogy.

Agla is completely unaware of Sonja’s predicament as a reluctant drug courier. Her own struggles are to avoid accountability for her illegal financial dealings, and also to deal with her mixed feelings about her lesbian relationship with Sonja.

I won’t outline any more of the plots of the books, only to say that they keep you deeply involved. Each of the main characters is deeply flawed, and both are continuing to commit serious crimes. While you are very drawn in to Sonja’s turmoil and desperation, Agla is at first not a particularly likeable person. But the writer keeps you strongly engaged with both of them throughout. The third book, Cage, takes off in an unexpected direction, and it’s probably not giving too much away to say that by the end your feeling towards these two characters is turned on its head.

I really enjoyed these books, and I read all three one after the other without pausing. Highly recommended.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir has written several other novels, including another trilogy. I’m certainly going to follow up on them, and will keep track of any further novels she writes (and has translated into English, it goes without saying).

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Cover of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann. Image shows blended image of Native American woman at left and profile of a Caucasian man at right, all against a dark background.

David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, has a fantastic ability to do intensive research on a topic and then spin a factual story into a compelling narrative. I really enjoyed his book The Wager, which I read and reviewed last year, as well as a collection of his shorter articles, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, reviewed here.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, published in 2017, he does it again. This is a shocking story of racism, greed and murder in the United States during the 1920s. It all began in the 1870s, when the Osage tribe of indigenous Americans, having had their traditional lands stolen by white settlers, were moved from one promised area of reservation to another, and finally to a small area in Oklahoma. This area was granted to them in perpetuity, but it was rocky and considered worthless. In what I’m tempted to call a clear case of divine justice, however, about twenty years later, prospectors discovered oil on the Osage land. Lots of oil. To be able to exploit it, the oil companies had to pay royalties to the owners—the members of the Osage tribe, who consequently became rich.

However, the greed and the inherent racism of white people towards native Americans quickly meant that the Osage wouldn’t be left to enjoy their new-found wealth in peace. The Osage were exploited in a variety of ways. Many of them were judicially declared incompetent to manage their own affairs and so had white ‘guardians’ appointed who were keen to line their own pockets.

All of that was bad enough, but it got worse. A series of highly-suspicious deaths as well as outright obvious murders began in Osage County in the early 1920s. Deaths which in many cases appeared to have led to the mineral rights of members of the tribe being inherited by white people. In seeking justice, however, the Osage found themselves blocked by corrupt local officials and wealthy individuals such as landowners and bankers.

The subtitle of the book tells it all, really: “Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI”.

As David Grann often does, he makes events come alive by focusing on particular individuals and their experiences. He tells this appalling story by focusing on two people in particular: Mollie Burkhardt, an Osage woman in her thirties, whose sister Anna was murdered in May 1921, and who subsequently had several other family members die in violent circumstances; and Tom White, an ex-Texas Ranger recruited as an agent by a then-obscure federal agency, the Bureau of Investigation, and assigned by its new head, J. Edgar Hoover, to head a team investigating the crimes in Osage County.

The struggles of Tom White and his team to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable make fascinating, if at times infuriating reading. And Grann documents how their investigations boosted the reputation of the Bureau of Investigations, which eventually had the word ‘Federal’ added to it, to create what we now know as the FBI. The grief and shock suffered by Mollie Burkhardt at the death of her relatives, and worse, the ultimate revelation of who was responsible, are well depicted.

Really well worth reading, highly recommended.

I’ll be interested to see how well the new movie based on the book turned out. By all accounts it sounds pretty good. I’m pleased to see that they did cast a native American, Lily Gladstone, in the part of Mollie Burkhardt. And with a director like Martin Scorcese and stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro involved it certainly has everything going for it.

Currently Reading

Covers of Dark Matter, Hush, and An Intimate History of Evolution

That’s all for this issue. See you next time!

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