Operation Napoleon, By Arnaldur Indridason

When the blood doesn't run cold

Andrew Williams
Monday 15 November 2010 01:00
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Arnaldur Indridason's Reykjavik murder mysteries have become international bestsellers, with their hero jockeying for the accolade of Scandinavia's most popular misanthropic detective.

His publishers have capitalised on this public appetite for Nordic gloom by excavating another thriller from his Icelandic back catalogue.

Operation Napoleon begins with a German bomber on a clandestine mission in the last months of the Second World War. Inexplicably, senior American officers are travelling with their German counterparts on what appears to be a joint operation. Caught in a blizzard over Iceland, the pilot is forced to crash-land on Europe's largest glacier.

An American army rescue team is unable to locate the survivors, and within days the ice has swallowed bodies and wreckage. But the glacier is constantly moving and, 54 years later, it disgorges its secret. So sensitive is the intelligence contained in the plane, American spy satellites have been monitoring the area and Washington dispatches a special-forces team with orders to remove all trace of the operation.

Two young Icelanders stumble across the recovery team as it is securing the fuselage of the bomber. Before they are captured one manages to contact his sister, Kristin, a lawyer at the Icelandic foreign ministry. In a broken telephone conversation he describes what he has witnessed. The chase begins: can Kirsten piece together the wartime mystery and rescue her brother before the Americans succeed in burying both for ever?

Operation Napoleon reaches back to the real conundrum the British and Americans faced in the closing months of the war, when a new Cold War enemy was emerging in the east. But the characters and plot owe a little more to Hollywood than to history. "That girl is unbelievable," the American villain observes of the heroine at one point in the story, and he is quite right. Slick, improbable, and with enough chases to keep the reader turning the pages, this thriller is nevertheless a little empty, the prose a little too spare, at least in translation (by Victoria Cribb), with characters that do no more than service the breathless narrative. There are some fascinating glimpses of bleak midwinter life in Reykjavik, and the frosty relationship between Icelanders and US forces stationed in the country, but not enough to satisfy the true connoisseur of Nordic crime fiction.

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