A Place to Bury Strangers by Grant Nicol – 2016

place-to-bury-strangersIn my last review of a Grant Nicol book – The mistake, also set in Iceland – I suggested a longer novel might allow us more time to get to know his characters, saving them from the “all women are victims, prostitutes or evil; all men are well meaning, just following orders or psychologically damaged” array.  A place to bury strangers is a full-length novel – but we haven’t really moved on in terms of characterisation.  I had hopes for Eygló (no surname provided) – a woman copper who seemed to have a bit of nous, but she disappears from the narrative very early on – after having been called to the murder scene where a low-down-in-the-chain drug dealer has been incinerated, and a message in Norwegian written in black paint on the wall behind him.  She is called off (from the crime scene and the novel) when she and her partner get word that a policeman has been shot.  That policeman is Detective Grímur Karlsson, who we know from earlier novels.  And Karlsson is even more depressed now – he is ageing, and unpopular at work from having a habit of not solving crimes (or rather letting perpetrators go due to a confused moral compass).  Karlsson has been shot whilst following a young woman he fears is in danger and things not going well.  Karlsson’s boss Ævar – worried about his job – focusses on a Norwegian for both crimes.  This Norwegian’s frequent visits to Iceland are always accompanied by crimes that, until now, don’t really worry the Police, as they all involve damaging drug dealers.  The novel jumps about all over the place time-wise (in part I suppose because of Karlsson being out of action for most of the ‘current’ timeline) – and the only way I could keep track was to memorise the date of the incineration and shooting and therefore knowing what events were ‘before’ and which ‘after’.  Laid out in a line the novel is about illegal migrant workers and their vulnerability, women and their vulnerability, the evil of drugs, and the corruption of the elite – oddly enough in this case circling around Icelandic fishing quota.  And all of these topics are relevant and worthy of a crime novel, and Iceland is a great setting, but with all combined A place to bury strangers doesn’t really get to the heart of any of them.  We get the stories of many women, and their end is implied, but their journey ignored.  We almost get to know Knut Vigeland ‘The Norwegian’, we almost get to know Svandís the young drug addict, we almost get to know many characters who I would have liked to know.  And despite the long paragraphs on Karlsson’s world weariness I still didn’t get to understand him – some of his ethical calls sounding decidedly dodgy.  And do they really talk of ‘lollies’ in Iceland?  Despite this review there is much to enjoy in this novel – the atmosphere is good and the situations inventive – it was just too busy for my taste.


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