I like to read mystery series in order, when I get the chance. I’ve just finished Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights, which is actually a recently written prequel to his popular series featuring Inspector Erlendur. A true “first in a series” is Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, which features Maggie Hope as a less professional detective, at least in this first book. I really enjoyed both books. They share intriguing settings, excellent detail and interesting sleuths, so I plan to read more in both series.
Reykjavik Nights, not surprisingly, is set in Iceland. Erlendur is a low level cop with a stubborn need to know what happened to one of the town’s homeless men. He works without authorization and under the radar in a way that would be implausible in the average police department, I hope. Like so many detectives in the Scandinavian mysteries, Erlendur’s thought process regarding his case is set out fairly plainly, but it is hard to understand what makes him tick outside this need to solve the crime. His more personal side is referenced but not given the kind of passionate detail common to so many American mysteries. Even he seems to be merely observing his personal life without any need to evaluate it or commit to it. Nor does he have the close friend or colleague to support him and serve as his sounding board that are so common in the American genre. That’s not a criticism, but this is something that sets Reykjavik Nights apart. The actual plot is quite interesting, and all the shady characters Erlendur encounters in his unofficial investigation really enhance the story. Even as Erlendur seems uninterested in his own personal life, his sympathy and regard for many of the down-and-out people he interviews helps to fill in some of the contours of his own character.
I picked this particular book because I am about to go to Iceland for the first time and am curious about the country. Reykjavik Nights provides rich detail and helpful historical background about Iceland in general and Reykjavik in particular. Some of the descriptions of peoples’ public behavior seems oddly consistent with some of the bizarre characterizations sketched by Michael Lewis in his recent book Boomerang (a great book about Lewis’s visits to Iceland and other countries that contributed in their own special ways to the worldwide financial crisis of 2008). It will be interesting to compare the Iceland I see as a tourist with the world that Indridason sets out. Of course I am hoping to avoid death in general and murder investigations in particular.
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal is an historical mystery set in London during the Blitz. Unlike Erlendur in Reykjavik Nights, we know a lot about Maggie Hope, who finds herself working as one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries during World War II. Maggie is very likable, and it is easy to empathize with her resentment that she is only permitted to be a secretary because of her sex. Her Wellesley education and monster math brain are initially of no importance to anyone but Maggie, but of course things change and Maggie’s talents are revealed. As she becomes involved in an investigation into wartime spying and a murder, she stumbles upon her own personal mystery. There is a lot going on in this warm and sympathetic mystery. I liked the character, and I am a sucker for World War II stories, so I found it a good read. The descriptions of London and the people living and working there at that time were excellent. If you don’t know much about the period, this book is a very enjoyable way to get a little background. It has a more chatty and social tone, but it shares some of the code-breaking background of that wonderful movie, The Imitation Game.
Now that I have read Inspector Erlendur’s prequel and the initial installment of the Maggie Hope series, I am interested to see how these characters develop and how their subsequent books play out. I recommend both books.