Friday, March 2, 2012

A Review of the "Flatey Enigma" [21]

The Flatey Enigma by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Amazon Crossing, ISBN 978-1611090970
February 21, 2012, 224 pages.

Off the west coast of Iceland, in the Breidafjordur, a large shallow bay encircled by mountains and glaciers, there are many, many islands, including one called Flatey. When this novel takes place, in the 1960, there is a small community living there, subsisting on their seal skin harvest and eiderdown collection. They eat seal meat and puffin and collecting the eggs of wild birds, doing some fishing and raising a few cattle and what little crops can be raised in this wild climate with bitter winters.
But once, centuries ago, Flatey was a center of Icelandic culture and best known for the construction of a national treasure, the medieval 13th century manuscript called the Flateyjarbók, or Book of Flatey. The copy that is held in the island's tiny library is it's greatest treasure. And the source of a never solved puzzle, the Flatey Enigma.

But the sleepy pace of the island is going to undergo a big change. A family of fisherman, grandfather, son and grandson, land on a tiny, uninhabited nearby island when sea hunting and find the body of a stranger. It seems that he somehow got trapped on the island alone, with no boat, and died of exposure. Who could he be and how did he possibly get out there, to die that horrible death? This is not a place where strangers go unnoticed, yet no one seems to know who this man is..or how he came to die. But it is soon clear that it is closely tied to Flatey and it's great treasure.
The oldest and smallest library in Iceland (est. 1836) is located on the island of Flatey,

I have a weakness for mysteries set in the Far North, but interestingly, this is set in an Iceland that we rarely see. No urban Reykjavík here, but a wild, barren island and a fascinating look at a culture, in a setting decades ago, that is both interesting and at times quite foreign. Example...seal meat, fermented ray and puffin breast for dinner...hmmm. But if you can overcome a weak stomach, I think you will agree that the author bring us a fascinating and very real look at a great setting, one of the strongest positives of this book.

Flatey's tiny library is where the facsimile of the Book of Flatey is housed.
And then we have our cast of characters and quite an unusual bunch they are, including the lead investigator who is not like any you will have met before..or wait, he is the lead suspect? Especially when a second body turns up. My, this little island is becoming quite the hot bed of crime.
And I must say that I enjoyed many, if not all, of the vignettes from the Flatey Book that ended each chapter, each giving and answering one of the forty clues in the unsolved puzzle. Some are amusing, most are terriblly brutal, but all are interesting. And then we have some ties in the plot to the characters' history during WWII, just a few decades ago when the book takes place, also rather intriguing.

Not everything is positive about this book.
I will admit that it is a bit difficult to keep all these Icelandic names, unpronounceable to this English speaker, straight. It gets off to a very interesting start, when we meet all the players and learn about this island. And the ending, I thought, was very clever and very nicely tied up all the threads. But it takes a distinct lag in the middle, including a side story with a police investigator on the mainland that I think could have been greatly reduced. A bit tighter there and this would have been a much better book. As it is, the middle is rather boring and drags.
But for all that, it was still quite good and very interesting, showing us a place and a culture that I would love to see more of, some good characters and a nice mystery.

My thanks to Amazon Vine for a review copy of this book...and for the use of those photos of the island from their web site.


  1. This sounds interesting. I like learning more about how they live in places like that, although ugh - poor cute little puffins!

  2. This does sound good, even with the lull in the middle. When I read a book with unpronounceable names, I just make up new names for the characters.

  3. I'm just enchanted with that little library!! How adorable!!! But puffin breast … NO WAY. (Unless it tastes like chicken, which it probably does.)

  4. but puffins are just SO, SO cute..not to mention the baby seals.


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