The Dancer by Óskar Guðmundsson

Translated by Quentin Bates

Corylus Books are certainly keeping Icelandic translator Quentin Bates busy. There’s another Stella Blómkvist in the works soon after last year’s Murder at the Residence, amongst others he has translated for Corylus and other publishers. This novel is Guðmundsson’s fifth, the second to be translated, and the first in a new series by the Icelandic author.

Set in the early 1980s, it features a veteran detective Valdimar and his new young assistant Ylfa. Known by their forenames, the two detectives are very much set up in this novel as master and protégé, and I love the well-worn trope of the older detective giving the benefit of his years to a younger colleague, they’re both great characters. Valdimar has to look after his health – there’s a running joke about cakes and biscuits at work – but otherwise is steadfast and happily married to Ásta who feeds him too healthily for his liking. Ylfa, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Mother to a baby, her relationship with her husband is rather rocky, and she is torn over whether she’s returned to work too early – her husband can work from home to minimise childcare needs. Being set before the dawn of our current internet era, communications are by phone and fax, and legwork is required for investigations. I rather like time’s banishment of technology from the plot, it simplifies things.

However, the main focus of this novel is not the detectives, but the story of a troubled young man. It begins with a gruesome and strange murder that we won’t find out more about until later in the novel. Instead, another body is found under a tarpaulin, a man who’d been away for some time, but owned several properties in Reykjavik.

We turn our attention to Tony, who is a damaged soul in many ways. His alcoholic single mother is now housebound, but clearly abused him, he keeps her well drugged up these days to minimise her demands. A former ballerina, when injury cut her career short, she turned all her attentions towards making Tony the dancer she couldn’t be. So, when Tony meets a group of dancers at a club and tells them he can dance, they invite him to have a tryout with their troupe for they always need male dancers. Usually the outsider, Tony feels at home with this group and turns up to their rehearsal where he’s immediately put to use, but not before an intense flashback to a time with his mother.

Tony followed the girls’ lead, but as had happened while he sat in the auditorium, the vision of the dancers began to blur until they vanished into the haze. He was alone on the stage, running the length of it and spinning in circles. He felt himself lide through the heavy air. He lifted onto his toes as if he were wearing ballet shoes, stepped and spun countless times. […]

‘Stop, stop, stop!’ Begga cried out, clapping her hands three times. […]

…the lights that had malfunctioned earlier came to life, bathing the stage in light. Begga took a sharp breath, and her hands went to her mouth as she saw his feet.

Tony looked down at his gnarled feet, as did everyone on the stage. […]

He ran from the stage and fled. (p37-8)

The reader’s sympathy for Tony is invoked, even though we know he has such a dark heart and is capable of extreme acts. However, Tony does get some positive attention from some of the dancers who don’t know his secrets; Hulda is intrigued, and Tony is thusly infatuated, not so her boyfriend. It gets quite complicated, as Tony imagines scenarios where he and Hulda meet, or did they actually meet and what really happened?

Guðmundsson keeps the chapters short, swiftly moving the plot on and changing viewpoints between Tony and the investigators. Bates’ translation captures both these changes and Tony’s moods perfectly. With its examination of Tony’s psychological state, from his point of view this novel is in one sense a whydunnit, even if the detectives still have to solve the crimes. However, I’m already looking forward to the next outing for Valdi and Ylfa.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Corylus Books, flapped paperback original, 201 pages. Pre-Order at Amazon (affiliate link).

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