Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist

Translated by Quentin Bates — Last year, Stella Blómkvist made their debut in English with Murder at the Residence and we discovered that the author’s identity is a mystery, even among the Icelandic writing community, which seems quite amazing. Now as second novel from this long running popular series, which has even been made into a TV show, has arrived in translation and Iceland’s best kept literary secret continues to be safe.

Whoever Stella is, there’s a lot to live up here as expectations are high after the critical success of the first outing. The main character in the stories is also called Stella Blómkvist, a high-profile celebrity lawyer with lots of irons in the fire. Some of her cases are incendiary affairs and a lot of fun – even the ones that don’t involve murder. She’s constantly in a fix. Her sexual appetite and love of whiskey are only matched by her propensity to land in trouble. The acerbic lawyer is determined and fearless and loves fronting up to the bad guys and the law – and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Now it’s 2010 and Stella is hired by a Scottish businessman to find his missing niece, Julia. Julia disappeared while touring Iceland on a motorbike a decade ago. The family has always had this hanging over them but now Julia’s mother has terminal cancer and it’s more urgent than ever that they find out what happened. The original investigation assumed Julia crashed somewhere in the wilderness alone, her body never to be seen again. The search soon wound down. 

Stella isn’t really convinced she can help but Gregory Mackenzie is insistent and is offering a lot of money for her to see what she can uncover. Immediately it’s clear to Stella that the original investigation wasn’t very thorough. She’s able to make a couple of connections that lead her to think something more sinister than an accident might have happened to Julia. It’s not long before someone appears trying to put a stopper on her enquiries, but with Stella there no chance of that.

Meanwhile, journalist Maki is a thorn in the side of the authorities, always looking to dig up dirt on the rich and powerful. He’s discovered that a prominent politician spied for a foreign power back in his 1960s student days. The security service and government lawyers want Maki’s to drop the story. He is on slightly dodgy ground as the evidence wasn’t exactly obtained legally and he keeps boasting about an exposé in a new book, which winds them up even more. Then suddenly his secret source meets a grizzly end, but Stella is on his side.

To top it all, Stella nearly dies on a glacier after a snowmobile crash but serendipitously discovers a frozen corpse – no spoilers, this is more than coincidence. An America academic contacts Stella speculating on the victim’s identity and again we’re back in the Cold War. Just to make things more interesting, Stella has other things on her mind. A blast from the past turns up claiming to be the father of her daughter, Sóley Ardís, and she has to figure out what to do about that too. Stella is relentless but in the land of the midnight sun everyone is blinded by something physical or emotional that keeps the truth hidden. 

Despite the themes, this is more murder mystery than spy story but it does reflect on Iceland’s role during the Cold War, which is interesting and something not well known in Britain or North America. Murder Under the Midnight Sun doesn’t have the powerful impact of Murder at the Residence but that’s because we have a better idea what to expect from Stella.

The novel is told in the first person so we are privy to Stella’s thoughts and her wry take on everything, which is a lot of fun. She’s sharp and cynical, and her voice gives the narrative and complex storylines real pizzazz. This time out there’s less day-to-day sexism but there’s enough misogyny to keep Stella’s anger fuelled up as she looks out for the little guy and punches away at the establishment. It gets pretty personal and Stella has to be at her best to outfox her opponents. 

The vibrant energy and the black humour of the novel comes across in the English translation. This book has pace and drive and the social issues that trouble the author are simmering passions here – a quiet fume at injustice, inequality, corruption and abuse of power colour the story. So a few less fireworks this time but enough to love it. This novel confirms Stella has staying power and she should keep us entertained for a long time to come as there are more in the series available for translation. Reading this novel leaves you fired up and with a sense of satisfaction at time well spent.

Corylus Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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