Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death in a Cold Climate, by Robert Barnard

As much as I like to tackle big, ambitious books, there's a time and place for lighter books of entertainment too, and after a spate of the heavy hitters I was in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery novel. I had picked up Death in a Cold Climate awhile ago, after reading about it on Martin Edwards' blog and now seemed like the perfect time to settle into it.

I've read a couple of Barnard's mysteries in the past, and always thought of him as a quintessentially British sort of writer, so was surprised to find that this book is set in the city of Tromsø, Norway. One might think this an odd choice, but in fact, Barnard was a professor of English there for ten years, and in some ways its more surprising that Death in a Cold Climate is the only one he wrote about Norway. I was interested in it partly because, having been published in 1980, it somewhat predates the big wave of Nordic Noir that has swept over us in recent years.

"It was midday on December 21 in  the city of Tromsø, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle."

So, though most of the photos you will find of Tromsø portray a bright sunny city, this is a midwinter's tale.

A young man, a stranger, appears in town, and is shortly after dispatched to his Maker. Winter is indeed a factor in the lag time between his death and the public knowledge of it. In between these events, we get to know those who frequent the Cardinal's Hat--"a Dickensian, cellarlike restaurant" where foreigners meet and mingle with Norwegians who want to practice their English. It's a nice device for bringing in both natives and foreigners into the list of suspects, because it doesn't take too long for Detective Fagermo to discover that the murder victim is an English speaker.

The mystery itself is I think a convincing one, but what I most enjoyed I think was Barnard's observations about the people and the place itself, which Barnard describes as the equivalent of an outback town, and a city of exiles. More wry than caustic, he is not above taking a poke or two at the natives. Not that the British and Americans who appear in his pages aren't in for a few barbs themselves.

The character of the murder victim did seem a little mystifying, though. Fagermo must build up a picture of who he was to even investigate the crime, so we are treated to quite a few past encounters. Some of them are somewhat at odds with each other. In the end, I think we continue to see him through a glass, darkly.

Although there are some amusing asides, not all of them resonated with me. And I still think the slyness of the Author Notes in front is one of the funniest bits:

"Setting a book in a real town always involves the danger that the reader will assume that the characters as well as the topography are based on reality. I should like to insist, therefore, with even more force than usual, that though I have remained fairly faithful in depicting Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English."

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