Volcanoes, geysers and spies…
😀 😀 😀 😀
It’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.
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.