Book review: The Flatey Enigma by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

The Flatey Enigma
by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson
translated by Brian Fitzgibbon
Amazon Crossing, 2012 (first published in Iceland 2002)

I very much enjoyed The Flatey Enigma. Set in 1960, some islanders from Flatey, off the west coast of Iceland (maps are helpfully included), find the decomposing body of a man on the islet of Ketilsey during a seal-hunting trip. Kjartan, a magistrate’s assistant, is sent over from the mainland to supervise the collection of the body and to find the identity of the corpse. Although the first part of the assignment is easy enough, it proves harder to complete the second — which, it is hoped, will indicate why the man was on the islet and how he died there.

The first chapters of the book are slow-paced, describing life on the small, impoverished island of Flatey (1.2 miles long and 1/3 of a mile across). Scraping a living is hard, and through the eyes of Kjartan the reader is given a full account of the ways of life of the islanders, complete with the awful sounding meals they eat. At the end of each chapter is a short paragraph about the ancient Book of Flatey, the earliest written history of the region – “Vinland”, Norway, Denmark, England and other countries all feature. A copy of the book is kept on the island but the original is in Reykjavik. There is a famous riddle associated with the book, which many have tried and failed to solve – the titular Flatey enigma. (The Flatey Book is real, but the enigma is a creation of the author.)

The investigation broadens to include the Reykjavik police, in the persona of a lazy but likeable detective Dagbjartur Arnason. Even though described as not the smartest investigator in the force, Arnason soon discovers not only the identity of the corpse but also a story of academic intrigue. The book develops an absorbing rhythm, as chapters tell the story of the investigation from two places, the island and the city, with each chapter ending with one of the 40 questions that make up the enigma, together with its possible answer(s). Towards the end of the book, the very different cultures meet head-on as two city detectives (considered more reliable than Arnason) visit the island to, they think, sort the matter out promptly. The chapter endings, the reader realises, themselves make up a story within the story told in the main novel, as it becomes clearer who is reading the excerpts from the book, and who is listening. And in themselves, they are relevant to the present-day events.

As a crime novel, the plot is well-constructed. The ending depends somewhat on the reader not having been told certain pieces of information, and perhaps one coincidence too many, but that did not spoil the book for me. It is also an unusual, unexpected solution. The historical-cultural story of the Flatey book and associated enigma is both fascinating to read about, and provides a strong motivation to read on to see if, and if so how, the puzzle is solved. The main enjoyment of the book comes from the descriptions of a lost way of life in the harsh environments of these islands 50 years ago, and in the mists of time where mythic stories of sagas, battles and bravery were handed down from generation to generation.

The translation is into US English, but the text has not been Americanised. The book itself was nominated for the Glass Key (Nordic Crime Award) in 2004; two more by Ingolfsson, House of Evidence and Day Break, are said to be forthcoming in this imprint.

I received this book free in the Amazon Vine programme.

More about the island of Flatey and the Flatey Book can be found at Wikipedia.

There are not very many reviews yet of this book (published in February) that I could find (that are sufficiently well written for me to provide a link here, at any rate), but there are some reader reviews at UK Amazon (there are also some at US Amazon but they seem pretty, er, informal).

A word about Amazon Crossing: apparently this imprint uses customer feedback “and other data” to identify and translate books into English. Recommendations are invited to:

11 thoughts on “Book review: The Flatey Enigma by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson

  1. Thanks for passing on your copy of this book Maxine which I enjoyed reading. I agree that the descriptions of island life were fascinating. I’m not sure how I would cope with eating seal meat and puffin breasts every day.
    I also agree about the ending. Something fairly fundamental is kept from the reader, although it is explained in detail at the end.
    I thought the Flatey enigma part of the book slightly uninteresting although the actually Book of Flatey sounds fascinating and I’d certainly not heard of it. It makes me want to visit the island.

  2. Seal meat and puffin breasts? I just became a vegetarian completely on that note!
    This sounds fascinating but I don’t think it’s available over here and I”m still working on a humongous TBR list.
    Wanted to say I again agreed with your FF comment and the post about Italian male writers and added a few points. I wonder why only the books I’ve read about Italian detectives by Donna Leon, a woman and someone who grew up outside of Italy, paint well-rounded women characters who have their own personalities, assets and opinions. Anyway, a good point for discussion — and a perplexing one. It’s rather frightening if that is actually the way Italian male authors think of women, in books anyway.
    Anyway, your post about Nesbo’s sudden fame in your household was quite funny! Hopefully, we’ll see your review soon of his latest book. I so hope it’s a good read.

  3. Thanks, Kathy! And in this book, seal meat and puffin breast were the best things they eat – there are far, far worse (not to mention, very old and hence maggoty things).

  4. Nice review, thank you! I am always happy to find new Scandinavian authors, and this sounds really good. I saw that this book is available on Kindle here in the US, free as a rental if you’re an Amazon Prime member. I’m going to put this on my list to read when I’m on vacation in May.

  5. Maxine: I am going to have to keep an eye out for the book. I love mysteries set away from the cities. I am sure I am biased as I reside in rural Saskatchewan. I wonder how much our place of residence affects reading choices.

  6. Pingback: The Flatey Enigma by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  7. I have just snaffled a copy of this from the US Amazon store thanks to this lovely review – I have a thing for remote/island settings (just started Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE based mostly on your recommendation). The descriptions of the food remind me of M J McGrath’s White Heat where they also tuck into seal fat and other things that made my stomach churn. Some days I do remember to be very grateful for the time and place of my birth 🙂

  8. Pingback: Review: Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson – The Flatey Enimga « crimepieces

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