by Sharon Tucker
Among the wealth of noir novels published in the past few years, Chris Ould’s three set in the Faroe Islands resonated particularly for me. They blend the best of what I enjoy about both Scandinavian and British noir. They share attention to forensic detail, have a lean prose style, a strong sense of landscape, and are peopled with characters worth the time and patience to get to know them despite a rather incomprehensible use (to me) of unusual punctuation in character names and geography. Often, their moods match the lengthy, leaden winter weather conditions one associates with Scandinavia—starkly cold, for the most part, dark and treacherous. Set in the bleak and beautiful Faroe Islands—think Shetland and Fair Isle by way of Denmark rather than Scotland—we meet two quite different detectives investigating a series of crimes over the course of the novels. The detectives meet in The Blood Strand (2016), become better acquainted despite their differences, marginally working together in The Killing Bay (2017), and are investigative allies in The Fire Pit (2018).
As The Blood Strand begins, British detective Jan Reyna has come to the Faroe Islands where he was born and lived briefly as a child. He has lived and worked in England since his mother’s early death, thus having had scarcely any contact with the Islands or his Faroese relations. Finding himself at loose ends while suspended from duty at the Met, he has traveled to these islands to look into his parents’ past but is drawn quickly into a criminal investigation involving his estranged father. Faroese detective, Hjalti Hentze, enters the picture, and it is hard to imagine two more contrasting personalities finding each other congenial and like-minded, but they do. Reyna is also drawn into the lives of his island relatives, some of whom are less than welcoming. The investigation deepens, threads and characters proliferate, but Ould’s use of two points of view in the narrative easily keeps the reader on track. In addition, through Reyna we learn more of the subtleties of Faroese culture and their relationship to Denmark. We are by now quite familiar with British reticence, but apparently, the Faroese have a leg up on that one.
I mistakenly read the third in the trilogy, The Fire Pit before reading The Killing Bay, the second, but the novels are seamless enough that the through lines exploring family, police politics, and criminal behavior are such that I knew where I was in the plot at all times. Here the body of a murdered environmentalist turns up in suspicious circumstances that point to either a resentful islander or a disappointed lover as the culprit. Apparently, the world of secret intelligence bureaus vary little from culture to culture because the investigation comes to a halt on the orders of the Danish secret service. Or does it? While reading this one I had sensed I had missed something important in plot development, but the centerpiece of the second book, the murder investigation, engaged my attention thoroughly nonetheless. Having read it now, the additional character development I noted in The Fire Pit fell into place for me. I will try not to make that reading order mistake again.
All plot lines converge in The Fire Pit. An apparent suicide leads Hentze to discover the skeleton of a long dead girl involved in the same hippie colony Reyna’s mother visited before they left the islands in the 1980s. A local Faroese girl linked to a nearby treatment center had also disappeared at about the same time and links to the center, pharmaceutical drugs, and abusive behavior all emerge that puzzle the detectives while spurring them on to a satisfying conclusion. I can only wish for more in the series.
Ubiquitous social media has robbed us of so much of the mystery that makes us individuals and perhaps that is why a trilogy that unravels character and plot mysteries as a steady, measured pace is so welcome. Although I Google places, definitions, and people with the most adept, I like that I have to wait and see for so much of these novels. The wait is more than worth it.
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