Cold Breath by Quentin Bates - book review

When you have translated into English some of the best Iceland Noir novels on the market, it would be a crime not to write your own Scandinavian thrillers.

Cold Breath by Quentin Bates
Cold Breath by Quentin Bates

Cold Breath is the seventh novel featuring tough nut Reykjavík police sergeant Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladdóttir from crime author and Icelandic translator Quentin Bates whose marriage to an Icelandic woman and his own residency there have given him an intimate knowledge of the country’s society, its languages, customs and quirks.

The Gunnhildur Mystery series has its origins in a deep affection for Iceland and its people and as a co-founder of the crime writing festival Iceland Noir with Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson, Bates is one of the very few British authors writing Scandi Noir set in Iceland.

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These gripping, atmospheric and astutely observant novels reflect many of the issues facing contemporary Icelandic society and this intriguing new case for Gunna poses complex questions of conscience and duty as she is called on to protect a man who could well be a terrorist.

Experienced officer Gunna reluctantly allows herself to be taken off police duties with the Serious Crime Unit and away from her family on a special assignment as bodyguard to Ali Osman, a controversial Middle Eastern philanthropist who heads a charity supporting refugees.

Hidden away in a secure house on the coast near Reykjavík, Gunna and Osman, a guest of Iceland’s interiors minister, are thrown together and it’s too close for comfort for Gunna who has the uneasy feeling that she is being ‘scanned and labelled’ by the foreign visitor.

As the friction grows between Gunna and Osman, she must work out for herself if the man she is protecting is the charitable operator he claims to be or an astute businessman who has made a fortune from the turmoil in the Middle East, along with some powerful and unforgiving enemies.

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And they soon find they are neither as safe nor as carefully hidden as Gunna and her boss had thought. The press are beginning to sniff out the high-profile Osman, as do another group with their own reasons for locating him. They are monitoring his movements and his meetings with a radical group which has its own agenda in the Middle East.

Conflicting glimpses of Osman’s past start to emerge and Gunna struggles to come to terms with protecting the life of a man who may have the lives of many on his conscience. And if he’s not innocent, is he even worth protecting?

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Bates’ fascination with the turmoil of Iceland’s recent history is reflected in this clever and compelling thriller which sees the case unfold through the perspectives of several characters, adding to the heightened sense of tension and mystery which increases with each turn of the page.

The almost daily influx of refugees into Europe and the political issues that it raises are explored in a thought-provoking story that stretches far beyond the shores of Iceland to Russia, Brussels and the Middle East.

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Bates’ dark brand of humour, which lightens the darkness of the chilly, windswept landscape, and some fascinating police detection work help to make this immaculately plotted and fast-paced thriller the perfect accompaniment to autumn nights.

(Constable, paperback, £8.99)