On the surface, the glacial surface, Operation Napoleon is very different from the Erlendur novels which have been so successful for Arnaludur Indridason. It's a fast-moving thriller, about a Nazi bomber lost in an Icelandic storm in 1945, which the Natnajoekull glacier gives back in 1999. And it's an airplane that the US wants desperately to retrieve, and retrieve in absolute secrecy.
Indridason handles the thriller neatly, building the plot elements slowly, with the same misdirection thrown out by the authorities—the thriller element, will the Americans get the plane, and more important get away with what they do to protect their secrecy, is well done, but the real thrill is in the mystery, as we weave our way through the misdirections thrown out by the authorities.
But the real story is the struggle of a young woman, an Icelandic bureaucrat called only Kristin, to find out what has happened to her brother, leading a rescue party, who stumbled across the recovery operation, phoned her, and was tortured and left for dead. And that struggle illuminates, in stark detail, some of the differences between the Icelandic and America character, in the wake of the whole debate about Iceland's role as a key point in the military web of the USA. It is a case of simple versus complicated, nuanced against simple, straight-forward against very crooked indeed. And it's one Indridason obviously relishes.
He stacks the deck somewhat, in a playful way that for me undercut the suspense. The two intelligence agents chasing Kristin are called Ripley and Bateman, who are of course two of American fiction's most memorable sociopaths. Which makes a comment, in its way. The original commander, trying to recover the plane back in the Forties, is called Miller, which suggests the simplicity of the so-called 'greatest generation'; and the two Icelandic brothers who originally witnessed the crash seem to share some values. While his replacement in 1999 has a Lithuanian name, Vytautus Carr, which kept me thinking of Red October, while the man he puts in charge on the ground is called Ratoff, which seems a bit of overkill.
If the secret, once revealed, is a little anti-climactic, and somewhat unconvincing (it all happened, obviously, despite the crash) it's an audacious plot that reflects back on the roots of our modern malaise; perhaps the greatest generation weren't all so great after all. It's impressive to see Indridason turn from the slow build of tone in the Erlendur series to something far more staccato, and do it so well.
Operation Napoleon by Arnauldur Indridason
translated by Victoria Cribb
Vintage, £7.99, ISBN 9780099535638