Review: ‘Thin Ice’ by Quentin Bates

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People often say to me, ‘Hey, you! Get out of my garage!’ Well they did, but that was back in the days when I was young and disaffected. Now they say to me, ‘Hey you! Why are the names in your Ikmen books so unpronounceable?’ To which I usually reply, ‘Oh for God’s sake, man-up will you!’  But ever since I’ve got into what is loosely called ‘Scandi Crime’ or ‘Nordic Noir’ my impatience has come back to haunt me. Turkish names are a doddle – for me. But Scandinavian names? Oh good Lord! Remember that Icelandic volcano that erupted a few years ago? Eyjafjallajokull? I don’t even know where to start. I just make a noise in my head. Ditto with many of the names in Quentin Bates’s latest book ‘Thin Ice’. I can’t even begin to ‘man-up’. That said, does that affect my enjoyment of the book? Not a bit. And, what’s more, it’s a really great book.

Basically, without giving too much away, this is the story of two blokes who think they can rob a local drug dealer and get away with it. Ossur is a small time criminal and pot-head with a vicious streak while poor Magni is at heart a good soul who just needs a bit of extra cash. Together they rob a powerful, if shabby, drug lord known as Alli the Cornershop who WILL kill them if he catches up with them. But their plan goes wrong when a third member of their gang fails to turn up with their getaway car. Fearful for their lives, Ossur and Magni hijack a car driven by a respectable middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. Ossur and Magni now have hostages. A few miles outside Reykjavik they find a deserted hotel just as the petrol in the car runs out. So begins a series of misadventures that include a murder that is so mundane as to be totally shocking. This is a killing that epitomises the banality of evil. It also happens quite a long way into the plot which is always risky but which, here, works really well.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. I could easily identify some of the ‘types’ represented by Ossur and Magni while appreciating that the latter, while starting out as a hanger-on, is transformed by this experience into a man of some moral fibre. Ossur too isn’t just a greedy pot-head, he’s a victim of his past, his own addictions and the people who feed them. The dealer, Alli the Cornershop, is just as venal and crafty as all such types are all over the world. Drug dealing may be bigger business in the UK and Turkey than it is in Iceland but the same ‘types’ get involved from Lima to Lahore. Cross him and Alli will chop your legs off just as surely as the guy who serves up Crack to addicts in London.

However the real stars of ‘Thin Ice’ are Quentin Bates’s series detective, Officer Gunnhildur (Gunna), who has a complicated extended family, and Iceland itself. The action takes place in the winter which is why the deserted hotel that Ossur and Magni hole up in with their hostages is only a few miles outside the capital. Away from towns and cities, Iceland in winter can be lethal. Horrifically cold, covered in snow so thick it can swallow cars in hours, the country is as much a threat to the hostages as Ossur and Magni – maybe more. This means that Gunna and her officers have to battle both Iceland’s underworld and the weather in order to find the missing women. It’s a race against time both for the police and the incompetent thieves. Almost anyone could freeze to death at almost any time – either by accident or design. As well as fear, there is also a weariness attached to this potentially lethal situation as well.

Gunna in particular as a middle-aged woman with kids she worries for, is often tired. Her job is non-stop, ditto her family and the intense cold on top of all that, wears her out. Quentin Bates’s writing makes you feel for her. I did. Especially at the end when a really clever twist the reader has and has not seen coming, but of which Gunna is entirely ignorant, swings in. Pacy, clever and unusual, I loved ‘Thin Ice’ and I look forward to meeting Gunna again soon.

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