It’s my judgment as a translator in a different Scandinavian language that the English title of Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson’s Icelandic novel The Flatey Enigma was poorly chosen. The Flatey Riddle or The Flatey Puzzle would have better expressed the idea (I found much, frankly, to criticize in the translation in general). On top of this, the use of the name “Enigma” in World War II codebreaking suggests to the reader that this book is probably some kind of thriller. But that’s not what it is at all.
It’s actually hard to assign The Flatey Enigma to a category. It seems to resemble the “Cozy” school of mysteries, but that’s misleading. Cozies are generally set, as the name implies, in comfortable settings. Middle or upper class homes, tea in the afternoon, that sort of thing. The setting for this book, on the other hand, is what we Americans would call “hardscrabble.” It’s the Icelandic island of Flatey, in the Breidafjord (I think I saw it from a distance on my one visit to Iceland), only a little more than a mile long, where the locals eked out a meager existence in the early 1960s (the time of the story) by fishing, hunting seals, gathering eiderdown, and anything else they could do to get by. Radio service was limited and electrical power almost unknown.
When a skeletonized body is found on a nearby islet, Kjartan, the hero (so to speak) of the book is sent to investigate. He’s not actually a policeman of any kind. He’s an assistant to the district magistrate, a summer job he took because he’s a law student and wants experience with legal documents. In fact he’s extremely shy with people, and dreads going around asking lots of questions of strangers.
Nevertheless, he soon discovers the identity of the dead man. He was Gaston Lund, a celebrated Danish historian. Lund had been doing a tour of sites from the sagas, on which he was an authority, but nobody knew he’d gone to Iceland at all. After he disappeared, his friends looked for him in Norway. But in fact he was here on Flatey, to visit the home of the best preserved Icelandic saga book in existence, the Flatey Book. Although the Flatey Book (at the time of the story) was housed in a museum in Copenhagen, there was still a reason for Prof. Lund to come to the island. Inside the local library’s printed copy of the Flatey Book there was an old word puzzle, “The Flatey Enigma” of the book’s title, sort of a cross between an acrostic and a crossword puzzle, which had baffled all scholars to date. Apparently Lund thought he had nearly solved it when he disappeared.
But who would have hated him enough to strand him on a barren island, to die of exposure? As it turns out, there are people here who have a history with the man, and motive.
The great plot failing of The Flatey Enigma is too many coincidences. Having a number of people whose paths crossed in the past meet again is not all that unlikely in a small country like Iceland, but having them all meet again by accident, in a remote place where none of them was born, is a bit of a stretch.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Flatey Enigma quite a lot. It’s a quiet, pleasant book, entirely devoid of world domination plots and bloody sociopaths. The characters are individual and amusing, and the setting picturesque and educational.
I was also pleased by the treatment of Christianity in this book. When a deacon and a pastor appeared, I was prepared for the kind of stereotyping so common in fiction nowadays, but both characters are decent fellows (though the deacon is involved in spiritualism, and it’s suggested that he has minor psychic powers. But that wasn’t a big part of the story).
In spite of its limitations, I had a good time reading The Flatey Enigma, and recommend it for pretty much anyone. As a bonus, you’ll learn some things about the sagas.