Review: Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson – The Flatey Enigma

Normally I would steer clear of a book with the word ‘enigma’ in it’s title. It suggests sub-Dan Brown conspiracies and implausible codes embedded in ancient manuscripts. However it came by way of recommendation (and a hard copy) from Maxine at Petrona , was by a Scandinavian author I hadn’t read before and promised to be more murder investigation than conspiracy thriller.

The Flatey Enigma is set on the Icelandic island of Flatey, located around 90 miles north of Rekjavik and inhabited by a small rural community who rely on fishing and seal hunting to survive. In 1960, three seal hunters find a dessicated human body on a nearby deserted island and Kjartan, a government official, is sent from the mainland to investigate the death. He finds the backward island life difficult to adapt to, where the arrival of the weekly mail boat is a major event, but is soon able to uncover the identity of the dead man.

The death appears to be connected to a mystery contained within the early mediaeval Book of Flatey. There is a puzzle consisting of 40 questions, the first 39 of which must be correctly answered to reveal the 40th answer and the key to the mystery. Although only accessible to a handful of academics and cryptographers, the puzzle draws people to the island from all over Scandinavia.

The ‘enigma’ is given its own little section at the end of each chapter. I found this part of the book the least interesting and tended to skim over the medieval stories that made up the puzzle. This is a shame as the Book of Flatey actually exists although the code is imagined. However, the murder investigation was much more satisfying. Kjartan proves to be a diligent investigator and although not all of the book is written from his point of view he is a key player in the drama.

The best passages in the narrative are the descriptions of island life. Ingolfsson spent summers on Flatey in the early sixties and he has obviously put his recollections of the time to good use in the book. Small details including the food eaten and the small customs observed give the flavour of a small community.

I found the writing slightly leaden but am still not able to to tell whether this is the result of the original text or the translation. I suspect it was a mix of both. But I liked it well enough to happily read another of the author’s books in the future.