Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Michael Ridpath's "Where the Shadows Lie"

"Amid Iceland's wild, volcanic landscape, rumors swirl of an ancient manuscript inscribed with a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power..."

Whoever wrote the jacket copy for Michael Ridpath's thriller Where the Shadows Lie, number one in his Fire & Ice series, might just as well have added, "This one's for you, Nancy," because, though I've never met Ridpath, I think he had me in mind as his perfect reader.

Rarely have I read a book about Iceland by a non-Icelander in which I can find nothing to complain about. (Okay, maybe the behavior of the golden plovers.) Ridpath may have grown up in Yorkshire and live in London, but it's clear he's visited Iceland--probably as many times as I have--and he hasn't just hung around Reykjavik and seen the standard tourist spots. He's read a lot of the books I have on my shelves, from Njal's Saga to Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and he's mashed them all up inside a wholly believeable crime novel that has real people bumbling around in a real Iceland.

Here is an example. Our hero, Magnus, an Icelander who has grown up in Boston and is now a Boston police officer, and an Icelandic woman named Ingileif are driving through south Iceland, in the shadow of Mount Hekla:

At Ingileif's direction, Magnus turned off the road and along a dirt track, winding up through the hills and into a small valley. His police-issued Skoda strained to maintain traction: the road was in poor condition and in places very steep. After a bone-rattling eight kilometres they finally came across a small white farm with a red roof nestling in the hillside at the head of its own little valley. Beneath the farm the obligatory lush green home meadow stretched down to a fast-flowing stream. The rest of the grass in the valley lurked brown and lacklustre, where it wasn't still covered in snow.
"'How fair the slopes are,'" Ingileif said.
Magnus smiled as he recognized the quotation from Njal's Saga. He finished it: "'Fairer than they have ever seemed to me before.'"

I've been in that car. I've had that interaction--though usually the Icelanders with me don't offer such an obvious quotation to complete.

And when the story continues, I recognize the farmhouse, the kitchen, the people there:

The father, an impossibly wizened man, stirred himself from a comfortable armchair, while the mother busied herself with coffee and cakes. A stove warmed the living room, which was chock full of Icelandic knick-knacks, including at least four miniature Icelandic flags.
And a giant high-definition television screen. Just to remind them that they were truly in Iceland.
The younger farmer who had greeted them did most of the talking. His name was Adalsteinn. And before they could ask him any questions he told them about his parents, the fact that he himself was single, the fact that the farm had been in the family for generations, and particularly the fact that farming these days was tough, very tough indeed.
The coffee was delicious, as were the cakes.

Michael Ridpath has met Icelanders and paid attention to their wisdom and depth, as well as to the obvious quirks and foibles most journalists seize upon. He understands how Icelanders feel about volcanoes and glaciers--as well as elves and trolls. Most importantly, he understands Icelandic sagas and the role they have played in Icelandic culture.

And not only in Icelandic culture. One of the reasons I wrote my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings, was to reveal how, through Tolkien, medieval Icelandic literature has shaped modern American and British culture. A number of readers have told me how surprised they were to learn, as one put it, that Snorri Sturluson was the "granddaddy of Bilbo Baggins."

Ridpath makes the same point--effortlessly and convincingly--in Where the Shadows Lie, though he has the advantage of fiction where I had to stick to fact.

For centuries, a family of Icelanders has hidden away a saga--and the ring of power it refers to. One of the only people they allowed to read it was J.R.R. Tolkien, and it clearly inspired The Lord of the Rings. (They even have letters from Tolkien to prove it.) So when the economic crisis hits Iceland and one of the family members decides to bail out her business by selling the family saga, it finds a ready market in LOTR fans. One of them is a Silicon Valley billionaire. Another is a Yorkshire truck driver. A number of people get bashed in the head and/or plunge to their deaths beside waterfalls before Magnus, our Boston cop, solves the mystery. As he and the Yorkshire truck driver are rushing to prevent the final killing, the Yorkshireman says,

"'There's nothing wrong in being a Lord of the Rings fan… What is wrong is when you let it blind you to what's going on in the real world.' He looked around at the extraordinary countryside flashing through the mist around them. 'Although sometimes I find it hard to believe that this country is part of the real world.'"

"I know what you mean," Magnus says.

I know what he means too.

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