Frozen Out: it Left Me Cold

Quentin Bates is a British writer who has written a mystery series set in Iceland. Bates lived in Iceland for ten years during the 80s/90s, and he and his wife live there part time now. He has translated several Icelandic authors work into English.

Frozen Out (also released as Frozen Assets) was published in 2011 and is set, roughly, in the run-up to the Icelandic governmental and banking scandal that was their part of the global Great Recession of 2008. For this reason, Frozen Assets would probably have been the more successful title.

I didn’t care for the book and I probably will not seek out the others. There were things that attracted me; the Icelandic setting, a woman detective (police sergeant Gunnhildur, who goes by Gunna), and a scandalous blogger called, in fact, Skandalblogger. I was looking forward to an immersion in the Iceland landscape and culture.

Unfortunately, my very first problem with Frozen Out came up quickly; it’s not an Icelandic mystery. It’s a British murder mystery nominally set in Iceland. Everyone speaks in British colloquialisms and slang, and Iceland is not well-evoked in the story. There are two exceptions: the names are good, and Bates has a character explain the Icelandic naming conventions to a Danish visitor, and a few of the foods mentioned are authentic local foods. Otherwise, it might as well be set in London, in The City, London’s financial district, during the 2008 economic collapse.

There is so little physical description given that when, late in the book, the villain pulls his car out of a parking space and “heads for the coast” I have no idea where he is going. Iceland is a large island; every direction is, eventually, “toward the coast.” Is he headed for the capital? For the airport? No clue.

The nation is filled with glaciers, geysers, lava fields, mountains, old farmhouses, old churches, modern churches, thriving modern cities (at least one, the capital); except for telling us in an early chapter about the “pastel-colored houses” in a village, there is no description. When Gunna and her crew head to Reykjavik and have to go into the “notorious bar district,” where things are skeevy, we don’t see it. Are the streetlights burned out? Is there graffiti? Is there litter? I haven’t got a clue.

The story itself also disappointed, I think in small part because Bates wasn’t sure where his story lay. He has a convincing woman police sergeant in a small fishing village. He also has a group of journalists from an independent paper in Reykjavik. For a while, it seemed like he wasn’t sure who his main character was. The story uses a mosaic point of view choice that compounds the confusion in some ways. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be reading, — a mystery, a thriller? Generally, when we follow the villain(s) in a story, the story is a thriller, but there were no real stakes in the book, no rising tension, which precludes “thriller,” and there was a murdered guy in the opening, so that should have made it default to mystery. I was confused.

The villains were horribly shallow, although the financial shenanigans were interesting, as was the blogger. I would hope the blogger continues as a story element in future books.

Basically, I think the repeated slackening in the tension is the mark of a new novelist struggling with a genre — and if here had been more for me; more immersion in the culture, more nuanced characters, I could be more forgiving about the dull plot and the missed opportunities. Overall, though, this book was not for me.

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