I always look forward to a new appearance from Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, also known as Gunna, the no-nonsense down-to-earth Reykjavik detective with excellent skills, solid experience and a dry sense of humour. This time in the seventh full-length novel, as the winter still reigns she is taken off regular police duty and assigned to work as a bodyguard to a high-profile foreign visitor.
This immediately makes her feel uncomfortable, especially as Ali Osman is a guest of honour of a controversial Minister of Justice. Hiding in the politician’s summer house in the middle of nowhere is not the usual task of the Icelandic police force and soon enough the tension between the pair grows.
Osman runs a very wealthy organisation called the White Sickle Peace Foundation which supports refugees from the war zones, but which is apparently a front for some unpleasant businesses in the Middle East, including trading in arms and ammunition and such. He tries to charm his way into Gunna’s affections while she, always on duty, questions her own perceptions about a charismatic man with a price on his head, who may be responsible for deaths of others, and wonders whether he can be as innocent as he claims.
His friendship with an American white supremacist also visiting Reykjavik doesn’t help with the general sense of uneasiness and urgency for the close-knit team protecting Osman. Several dead bodies in quick succession hike up the country’s average number of deaths and may be connected to the visitor.
Gunna is out of her comfort zone but most of the time doesn’t lose her cool head. She deals with the unpredictable events which only demonstrate that no one can be as safe, secure and invisible as she, her commanding officer Ivar Laxdal and even the Secret Service assume.
Skúli, a local journalist and one of the editors of Pulse, a hard-hitting investigative news site, and his friend Lars in Brussels from Plain Truth, an international human rights organisation, publish the Osman story online simultaneously, creating shockwaves. Political activism aside, others are looking for this travelling enigma. A mercenary who gets close enough to the house to shoot towards Gunna patrolling the garden, pays for this with his life. The police, convinced that he didn’t act alone, move Gunna and Osman to another safehouse.
Quentin Bates’ in-depth knowledge of Iceland makes the series a great guide to the country, its nature, social norms and cultural characteristics. As he weaves an intricate net of interconnecting issues, he also explores manipulation and the surveillance culture which has a huge impact on the everyday lives of ordinary people. And Gunna considers herself an ordinary person thrown into the situation created by others’ beliefs and views.
Cold Breath delivers great characterisation, and each person is portrayed with sufficient detail for the reader to form an opinion. The eagle-eyed can even spot a character that Bates borrowed from another story, with kind permission of its creator Lilja Sigurðardóttir, whose books he translates from Icelandic to English.
Bates’ incredible talent of getting into a middle-aged woman’s head and doing it with style deserves proper recognition. The visual quality of his writing and strong sense of location enhance the plot. I do hope that this meticulously plotted thriller, infused with black humour, full of insight into contemporary Icelandic life and international connections outside the island, and credible characters, will venture onto our screens as the unassuming yet powerful Gunna merits a much wider audience. She wouldn’t care much about it while cooking a big pot of meat, vegetables and potatoes for her family, but I would!