Ah, it’s good to have Saturday nights back on BBC Four.
It’s been a mixed bag on the channel this year, but recently – thanks to Danish series DNA and now the advent of a trip back to Iceland for The Valhalla Murders – things are looking up.
Not least because it’s also good to head back to Iceland. We haven’t seen an Icelandic crime drama since The Flatey Enigma, so the chance to head back to the island, and more specifically Reykjavik itself, feels like a real treat. And, with snow all around and the imposing Mount Esja looming to the north of the city, it really feels like the perfect winter treat.
I’m a big believer in showing a series at the right time (for example, you wouldn’t broadcast Mystery Road in the middle of winter in the UK), and The Valhalla Murders feels so right for these dark and chilly winter nights.
However, there’s no time to ponder these little morsels because we’re straight into the action. We see a middle-aged couple in a bar. They have sex in the toilets (classy) and then prepare for more drinks at the bar. When the man, Þor, receives a phone call from his ex-wife, he angrily ends the evening with his, ahem, drinking buddy. And, while he takes a leak outside on the quayside, an assailant brutally attacks him. Not just attacks him but kills him and scratches his eyes out.
Enter stage left Katrin ‘Kata’ Gunnarsdottir (Trapped alumnus Nína Dögg Filippusdottir) a wry, likeable single mother who also happens to be a detective in the Reykjavik police force. She’s no-nonsense, funny, and really doesn’t mess around. However, the case she’s working on (trying to identify the human bones found buried north of the capital) has to be put aside when the murder hits.
And this is an interesting wrinkle – we’re often told that there isn’t huge amounts of serious crime in Iceland, and you can tell that Kata’s team is a small one, already stretched to its limit. So when they have to investigate a high-profile murder (you also get a great sense of what a small city Reykjavik is, especially with how close the press get to cases) and she’s passed up for promotion, it’s hardly a strong base from which to start the investigation.
But investigate she does. We go from one suspect to the next, and then another murder with the same modus operandi – this time an elderly man is cruelly summarily extracted from his apartment and slayed.
With the pressure ratcheting up on Kata’s small team, her interim boss Magnus informs her that they’ve called an Icelandic profiler called Arnar (Björn Thors) back from Norway to give some much-needed help. Kata isn’t thrilled about this, but here Arnar comes and it seems he’s not thrilled to be back either. His father is ill in a nursing home, a touchy subject, it seems (“Nei” has never been spoken with so much venom when Kata asks him whether he wants to talk about his family), but slowly-slowly these two begin to form a relationship.
And, of course, we know that investigative pairings make or break crime dramas.
This one, thankfully, is a good one. Where Arnar broods and is watchful, Kata is straightforward and without social airs and graces.
Soon, the investigation leads to an old children’s home north of Borganes (which, in turn, is north of Reykjavik) and soon another body is found there. The name of this children’s home? Valhalla.
It seems the victims were staff there some 20 or so years ago. Do we have a vengeful serial killer on the prowl?
As starts go, it was a good one. There isn’t anything flash about The Valhalla Murders, and many tropes and characters traits it presents we’ve seen before. So to call the series generic is fair, but what’s enjoyable about this is the pace, the perfect balance between investigation and personal lives (Kata’s having problems at home with her teenage son), the acting and the direction, and the atmospheric soundtrack. And, of course, the snowy, otherworldly landscapes of Iceland.
It’s perfect in the lead-up to Christmas.
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