Review: Deceit

Jónína Leósdóttir – Deceit (Blog Tour)

Author Jonina Leosdottir
Translator Quentin Bates

Published by Corylus Books, ebook available from Amazon and Kobo; paperback coming soon. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Ewa Sherman for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: The pandemic has hit Iceland hard, and half the police force is in isolation. Reykjavík detective Soffía finds herself struggling to cope with a single-handed investigation into a spate of malicious acts taking place across the city and enlists help from an unexpected direction. Her psychologist ex-husband Adam has advised the police before, but with Covid raging in the city, would prefer to stay holed up in his basement flat as he deals with challenges in both his working and private life. He grudgingly agrees to work with Soffía but the stakes in the investigation are continually raised. Working out who bears a grudge that goes deep enough to lead to murder, Soffía and Adam unravel complex family ties, lingering enmities, a dark past that the victims would prefer to keep secret, and a young woman in a race against the clock to find the father she has never seen, but for what purpose?

I first encountered Jónína Leósdóttir on a panel at Newcastle Noir a few years ago, where she spoke about her Edda series, and I liked immensely the way she looked at things when asked about her work. Those books are not (yet?) available in English, but instead we have Deceit, billed as the first book in a new series, which is always a bit of a thrill. 

The opening dives straight into the action: Soffia, a cop, is calling her ex-husband Adam, a psychologist, after needles have been found in fruit sold in a Reykjavik wholefoods store – she has few clues and wants his insight, especially since she has few colleagues available as it’s April 2020 and Covid-19 cases are spreading fast through the force. He’s reluctant, but Soffia gives him no option to refuse. And he’s intrigued by the case despite himself. 

Meanwhile, Adam takes on a new client, a man whose stepdaughter has been diagnosed with a hereditary condition after her mother has died without telling anyone who her biological father is. Rebekka doesn’t want to meet this man – she wants to find him and kill him for passing on this disease. Rebekka isn’t interested in engaging with a therapist, but Adam cannot shake off her case, and does a little investigating between helping Soffia and disinfecting his groceries.

The needles case expands, and threats of various kinds are seen as a complex family link is found between those affected. While the crimes remain relatively low-key, the people and relationships come to the fore, which is where Leósdóttir really shines as a novelist. However, that’s not to say things don’t take a turn for the darker and more fatal, for they sadly do.

In essence this is a novel of families, exploring how the troubles of childhood rear their heads in adult life and relationships, the consequences of trauma taking many years to show themselves. While for some there is no resolution to be had by the end of the novel, at least there are explanations. 

As we go through the novel, there are periodic Covid-19 updates, giving real statistics on the virus. I found these both jarring and genuinely disturbing – more so than the fictional crimes, in fact. However, the pandemic setting does perfectly show us Adam’s obsessive nature, and as a general backdrop was interesting.

Adam and Soffia provide most of the lighter moments in their interactions, as well as driving the investigation to its conclusions. They are like chalk and cheese – he is English, reserved, cautious, neat; she is Icelandic, brusque, bull in a china shop careless – though he does note when she takes a more sensitive approach with a witness than he expects, and she appreciates his insight even if she seems unlikely to ever say “thank-you”. She also knows of Adam’s relationship with Jenny – this is an interesting strand which I imagine will play out more as the series progresses.

The plot is fresh and fairly light on both death and anguish compared with many current crime novels, though there is darkness to be found and the knowledge that there is more to come for some characters. I found the style charming and warm – a tip of the hat here to translators Sylvia Bates and Quentin Bates – and even when things get tough it gives us the feeling the mysteries will be solved. That’s no mean feat when writing in the teeth of the pandemic, when most of us felt permanently adrift from any kind of resolution, so applause to Leósdóttir for achieving that. Deceit is not my normal kind of read, but it was just the ticket to stave off some of the winter darkness that is rapidly descending. 

Jónína Leósdóttir has written 20 books, fiction and non-fiction, plus many short stories and plays for radio and television. In 2016 she turned to crime with a five-book series about amateur sleuth Edda. Deceit is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Reykjavik featuring police detective Soffía and her ex-husband, psychologist Adam. Jónína has received awards for her poetry, short stories and books for young adults, and was instrumental in establishing The Icelandic Women’s Literary Prize in 2007. In 2013 she published a memoir about her relationship with Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, former prime minister of Iceland.

Quentin Bates is a writer, translator and journalist. He has professional and personal roots in Iceland that run very deep. He worked as a seaman before turning to maritime journalism. He is an author of series of nine crime novels and novellas featuring the Reykjavik detective Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir. In addition to writing his own fiction, he has translated books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, Óskar Guðmundsson and Ragnar Jónasson. Quentin was instrumental in launching IcelandNoir, the crime fiction festival in Reykjavik.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @JoninaLeos
And follow translator Quentin Bates here: @graskeggur

Don’t forget to check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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