It was a pleasure to receive The Commandments by Icelandic author Oskar Gudmundsson. Furthermore it made me happy that newly established publisher Corylus Books is continuing to support crime fiction out of Iceland (as well as other under represented countries such as Romania). I knew Oskar’s name because he is on the organising committee for Iceland Noir, Iceland’s crime fiction festival and I had seen him on social media but did not know much else about him.
It turns out that Oskar’s debut novel Hilma and its sequel Blood Angels were very well received in Iceland and the TV rights were bought quickly. Oskar was born in 1965 and has been writing since he was a teenager. In 2011 he started writing seriously and in 2015 crime thriller Hilma was released in Iceland. As well as being a writer he is also an artist, photographer and keen outdoorsman.
The Commandments is not a large book and from its title and cover art you can guess it has some religious context to it. It is a stand alone novel. The opening of the book is a flashback to 1995 and is quite striking. It made me feel a little uncomfortable and intrigued. The style of writing feels very contemporary which I liked and despite the 1995 opening the story quickly jumps forward to 2014. The reader quickly gets a sense of what the story is going to be about before the author introduces us to the main protagonist Salka Steinsdottir. The story then begins to reveal itself at a decent pace and comes to a satisfying conclusion for the reader. The characters are well written and by the end of the book we have a greater understanding about the tensions that exist in the lives of the characters.
The landscape and weather play a part in the The Commandments, but not as much as in some other Icelandic books. A body is found in a church in a small hamlet near Akureyri where everyone knows everyone’s business. Salka is called in to help in an investigation into a stalwart of the church and local community. This decision immediately raises certain colleagues’ hackles as Salka is on leave from the Police due to a personal trauma and just happens to be back in her home area on a fishing trip. Having been fishing in Iceland I really enjoyed the fishing scenes. I don’t remember any fishing scenes in any other Icelandic crime fiction books so it was something different.
The social commentary in The Commandments is clearly topical and although child sex abuse is not something I normally choose to read about, in this case Salka’s story kept me reading and I am glad I finished the book. Salka has a very straight forward attitude which sometimes irritates her colleagues. This made for good tensions in the story. She is an intelligent, determined detective. I liked that aspect a lot.
I could easily imagine The Commandments as a television show. It definitely has many elements that could make a great crime fiction show; religion, sex, contrasting locations, strong characters, tragedy, a wide web of suspicion and multiple victims. I imagine it would be very watchable just as it is readable. If you want to read a new author out of Iceland then I would recommend this book. It is dark, challenging and feels contemporary. Yrsa Sigurdardottir said “Oskar Gudmundsson is the kick-ass breath of fresh air that Icelandic crime fiction has been waiting for” and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
The Commandments was published on November 15th 2021 by Corylus Books and was translated by Quentin Bates.