Sea of Stone

Written by Michael Ridpath

Review written by Michael Jecks

Sea of Stone
RRP: £8.99
Released: February 2, 2015

I have to confess, I have never really taken to the new genre that seems to me to be "Scandinavian Sour Sagas" because I don't think that there's anything in a specific genre that makes it better or worse than any other.

The current fad for Danish, Swedish, Norwegian or any other northern cultural style of crime story has passed me by. There are many good writers, I know: Mankell, Larsson and others - but when I hear that they are more realistic, or more genuine, I tend to think that the reviewer is out to promote a novelty because that culture or society is new to him or her.

I loved the Millennium series. I really liked the concept and the execution - but were they better books than those by, say, Michael Connelly, Jeff Deaver or any number of Brit authors? No. In fact in many ways, the middle book in particular was a fair bit worse. It grew repetitive, and suffered from (yes, in my view, but my view's all I care about in this write-up) poor copyediting, and I think that the endings were not well executed. To me, the end of book 1 jarred. The whole plot and driving force behind the book was used up already, and the last few chapters were almost bolted on.

However, that is all by-the-by. I was given Sea of Stone to read, and so I manfully gritted the teeth, sat down, poured a whisky, and prepared to be thrown into a world of grim, harsh, unrelenting misery.

Thank God, it was written by Michael Ridpath.

I am not the world's expert on crime writing. I am not the world's expert on anything much, to be honest, but I bought Free To Trade some years ago, and it was a book I couldn't put down. It cost me at least two days' work, and I nearly broke my ankle at one point when I stumbled into a pothole walking the dog while reading it.

This book follows on from others in the same series - I cannot comment on them. I haven't read any of them.

It begins with a rather shocking scene, in which a pair of young boys, Magnus and Oli Jonson, are at home and see their father. The younger is alarmed. He knows that his father is detested by his grandfather. There is a row when it's announced that their father has come to take away the boys. Grandfather demands whether killing his daughter wasn't sufficient: does he need to take her children too?

This is an intense beginning to a story, but then we launch into the book some years later. Magnus Jonson is now a trained police officer, living in Boston, and on secondment to help the Icelandic police. Iceland has a tiny population, and murder is rare, so when Magnus himself discovers the body of his estranged grandfather, he is viewed askance by his colleagues. When he also refuses to explain his movements, suspicion falls on him, naturally enough.

But at the same time, his brother has appeared, together with another man who has good reason to hate the dead man. And then we begin to delve into two families and the feud that has fed the flames of hatred for many years.

Like I said, I don't fall for a new sub-genre just because when I'm reading I cannot pronounce the name of the characters. That doesn't float my boat. In fact, it's more likely to sink my skiff. However, having said that, this book is an exquisite depiction of families torn apart. I found the characters, by turns, delightful, fascinating, infuriating and fabulous. Michael really does have a very fine eye for characterisation, and he can put a description on paper that is so fine, I almost felt I'd met them. The plot took a number of twists that were signalled well, but which still surprised me. That, I hasten to say, is rare. Usually I can see a change in direction a good half mile off - it's what authors do - but in this book, I was entirely misdirected, which I thought rather wonderful in its own right.

If you like Scandinavian writing, you may well like this. Personally, though, I'd say this is a superb novel. The location doesn't matter: it's a book by one of our country's very best crime writers at the very peak of his skills.

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