Translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle
Winner of the 2021 Cologne Crime Award
Joachim B Schmidt’s debut novel (actually fourth written but first published) is the latest noir discovery from Bitter Lemon Press. It’s set in Iceland in the village of Raufarhöfn, located on the far north-eastern tip of the country. Livings are earned from shark-hunting; the meat of the Greenland shark or other sleeper sharks, fermented to produce the national dish, hákarl.
Otherwise there’s not much money in Raufarhöfn. What there is lines the pockets of the local entrepreneur, Robert MacKenzie. He is fixated on turning the village into a tourist hotspot: he owns a not very well frequented hotel, and is busy building some kind of stone monument to engender further interest. His hotel staff are mainly Lithuanians. Why are Lithuanians interested in this cold, remote spot of the world? Well, might you ask.
When Robert MacKenzie goes missing, our narrator, Kalmann, is and is known to be, the last person to see Mackenzie alive. Actually he discovers a pool of blood in the snowy wilderness, which proves to be Mackenzie’s own. Naturally the police come calling. They are gentle with him, because Kalmann is intellectually challenged. His voice is so childlike that initially I thought he was about 10 years old. In fact he is 33 and not as naïve as first impressions would have us believe. He does realise that the police, although their behaviour says one thing, are, in fact treating him as prime suspect. On the other hand, he is easily blindsided by a beautiful Lithuanian.
Kalmann is a complex character: subject to violent fits of anger, smashing anything within reach. He is lonely; his only friend, an internet pal, Noi, whose face he has never seen, has a serious physical disability, but a mind as sharp as a tack. Kalmann’s mind tends to obsess, get stuck on a single track, particularly about the possibility of MacKenzie falling victim to a polar bear. (An idea which sends everyone into a state of panic.) Yet he is not helpless – he hunts Arctic foxes, he makes a living shark-baiting, and has ambitions to take the crown from his grandfather for producing the best hákarl in the country.
If the novel is as much an empathetic and sometimes humorous character study of Kalmann as it is a mystery, it is also a study of Icelandic society in the far north. This latter aspect reflects the Swiss author’s own love for the country to which he emigrated 15 years ago. And, as a reader, how refreshing to be taken outside of Reykjavik!
The true rub of a mystery, however, is whether the ending is a surprise. Well, I saw some of it coming but not all. I certainly didn’t see the twist that transformed Kalmann, the village simpleton and self-appointed Sheriff of Raufarhöfn, into a national hero!