The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chill FactorIt’s 1971, and post-war Iceland is a somewhat reluctant host to the American military, there ostensibly to protect Iceland under the NATO banner, but in reality because Iceland’s geographic position makes it a strategically important part of the Western bulwark against Soviet Communism. When the Americans fear that a Soviet spy ring is operating in the country, NATO sends in a British agent, Bill Conran, to investigate. Meanwhile, a young girl has been found dead after a drunken night out and a young American soldier is suspected to be responsible. The Icelanders, already resentful towards what some see as an American occupation, are outraged…

Sometimes, rather than reading historical fiction, it’s interesting to read a book written at the time – you tend to get a much clearer feel for the prevalent attitudes without the filtering of hindsight. This book is a great example of that. No one writing today about Iceland in the 1970s would generalise, exaggerate and affectionately mock it in quite the way this British author of the time did. Falkirk reminds us that Britain and Iceland had recently emerged from the Cod Wars – i.e., a long-running dispute over fishing territories in the North Atlantic. (In fact, he spoke too soon – the dispute would be resurrected in the following years and not finally settled till the late 1970s.) As a result, Brits of the time would probably have quite enjoyed seeing Iceland made fun of a little – the Cod Wars never really made us all-out enemies but they were certainly serious enough to cause tension and a degree of animosity.

And Falkirk has fun with his Icelanders – the drinking, the sexual permissiveness (he sounds quite jealous of that aspect) and the obsession with the weather. This 50th anniversary edition of the book has an introduction by Ragnar Jónasson, a very familiar name to fans of Nordic crime fiction, who says that Falkirk got a lot right, especially the descriptions of Reykjavik and the landscape, but tactfully suggests that some of the commentary on the Icelandic character needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Jónasson also tells us that the book was popular in Iceland at the time, partly because it was so rare for a foreign author to set a book there.

The other historical aspect that’s interesting to see from a contemporary perspective is the on-going Cold War. Falkirk has no doubt about the standing of the various players in that – the Brits are morally good and intellectually superior, the Americans might be a bit naive but they have lots of useful guns, the Icelanders should be grateful for NATO’s protection, and the Commies are evil! (Actually I suspect British attitudes today might be pretty similar to that, but moving swiftly on… 😉 )

The main strengths, as Jónasson suggests, lie in the descriptions of Iceland itself, with its active volcanoes, geysers and mud pools, the small, clean towns and the lack of poverty. Falkirk portrays the people as fun-loving, friendly souls with none of the repressed hang-ups of the stiff upper lipped Brits, so although he does make fun of them it is broadly affectionate. He talks about the extremely low crime rate, which is apparently true, showing that therefore an individual crime takes on a much greater importance in the public mind than it usually does in more crime-ridden societies.

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

I found the story itself somewhat less interesting. It’s a rather standard Cold War thriller and I felt it was too easy to spot the various double-crossers. However it was entertaining enough to keep me happily turning the pages, and Conran is a good, typical fictional spy even if he does seem to spend considerably more time chasing women than Russians! There is a bit of a twist at the end which obviously I won’t reveal, but it again arises from the recent history of Europe and perhaps would have felt more credible to readers at the time than it did to me now. There’s a fair amount of mild humour in it to lift the tone, and at just over 220 pages, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So overall I enjoyed it a lot, though more for the descriptions of Iceland and the historical context than for the story itself. Recommended for fans of spy thrillers, and also for fans of Icelandic crime fiction who might enjoy, as I did, getting a different perspective on the island’s recent past.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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14 thoughts on “The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

  1. I really enjoy an Icelandic setting – Ragnar Jonasson is a favourite! How interesting that it was so popular in Iceland at the time. I’m not sure I’ll read this but I might have a sneaky peek at the introduction when I see it – which will probably mean I end up buying it 🙂

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  2. Yes, it’s definitely be the Icelandic setting that interests me here. I have both interest and caution in reading a non-Icelandic viewpoint and do appreciate the commentary on this from an Icelander. The historical events of that time are new information for me, so some interest in that too. Thanks for your considered and informative review!

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  3. That’s such an interesting point you make, FictionFan! There really is a difference between the feel of stories written at a certain time, and the feel of stories about those times. You do get a much clearer picture of prevailing attitudes. And it’s interesting how people don’t always think about things like the Cod Wars that played a role in society and politics of the times, even if they don’t know. It sounds like there’s a lot to like about this one, and I’m glad that you enjoyed it overall.

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  4. I completely agree with you about reading books actually written during the time, there would be far to many hang ups today to write in a similar vein and Iceland and the ’70’s are particularly interesting to me, so this is one I’ll look out for!

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  5. I’ve not read any Icelandic crime fiction and prefer my spy thrillers on the big screen, but something about this does sound appealing.

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  6. Not sure this is one I’d actively seek out, but I’d probably find it interesting if it landed in my lap! I don’t know much about Iceland, you see.

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  7. Interesting comment about books reflecting their times better than historical fiction. Our middle grade book discussion group just talked about The Westing Game, a mystery, this morning. Written in the 70s, it pretty much pokes fun at a variety of stereotypes and is definitely not PC. In some respects, it felt like not much has changed since then. Regarding Iceland, I recall someone in my MFA program writing an autobiographical novel about growing up on a U.S. military base in Iceland. Drinking was heavily featured. But I don’t recall much else. Icelanders do read quite a bit, from my understanding. So I suppose a glass in one hand and a book in the other doesn’t leave much need for crime, LOL.

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  8. I am a spy fiction fan and I like to read about Iceland, so I should like this. The introduction is nice also.

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  9. I never even knew something called the Cod Wars had ever occurred! It feels like Iceland has become quite trendy in recent years – as a place to travel to and as a setting for books – so it would be interesting to read something older set there.

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  10. Interesting that this book ultimately was less interesting to you when you read it. At least you enjoyed it. Is this one of those books that just doesn’t age well?

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