The Flatey Enigma

Las Vegas
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The Flatey Enigma

(Flateyjargáta, 2002)

First published in 2002, during the dawning of Nordic Noir, The Flatey Enigma will be unlike most other Nordic crime fiction that you might come across. For one, at a time when other Icelandic crime writers were still adapting the urban crime novel to Reykjavík streets, Viktor Arnar chose to take on the form of the historical thriller, setting his story in Flatey; a small island off the coast of Iceland that is home to a tiny population and a rich and complex history.

When a disfigured body is found on the shore of a nearby island, an inexperienced district magistrate representative is dispatched to Flatey to look into the matter. There, we are introduced to the island’s close-knit community, steeped in superstition and local lore and prideful of their place as people eking out an existence in an unforgiving place. At the heart of the story is a crafty murder mystery with an intriguing historical element relating to the 14th century manuscript known as Flateyjarbók or Codex Flateyensis, which contains some of the best-known Icelandic sagas of today.

Its murder mystery elements aside, what is especially enjoyable about this forerunner of the “rural and remote” branch of Icelandic crime fiction – later mastered by writers such as Ragnar Jónasson – is the book’s world building. It’s depiction of an isolated Icelandic community in the 1960s offers characters that have a true sense of otherness to them; remnants of an older, Icelandic worldview that has all but disappeared.