Review: Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indriðason

First published in Iceland in 1999 Operation Napoleon was published for in English just this month. I couldn’t pass it up when I noticed it available as a new release for my eReader.

Just before the end of World War 2 a plane of mysterious origins crashes on the the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland during a fierce blizzard. Although it is thought to be a German plane the search that is mounted some days later is carried out by the American army which has a base in the country. However only a single wheel is discovered and the search is called off. More than 50 years later satellite images of the glacier seem to indicate the plane’s location and a new search is mounted by the US Army which still has a presence in the country. Several local civilians become unwittingly caught up in the search to find the plane and hide its secrets once and for all, the most notable of whom is a young lawyer called Kirstin whose love of her brother forces her to stand up to some truly nasty individuals.

This stanadlone novel from the author of the Erlendur police procedurals is at heart a fairly standard thriller. There is a big secret that some people will go to any lengths to hide, a few innocent people stumble across the secret’s existence and are unable to extricate themselves from events and then a race to see which side will overcome the myriad of obstacles to achieving their goal which in this case was permanent cover up for one side or survival and exposé for the other. The story certainly stretches the bounds of credibility at some points, especially with respect to Kirstin’s ability to get out a succession of near-death scrapes while around her the body count mounts, but it is by no means as far-fetched as some I have read and its internal logic is pretty sound. It is also well-paced and, particularly in its second half, is brimming with genuine tension and intrigue. The secret, when revealed, is just this side of plausible and is one of those that makes you wonder ‘what if’.

As with Indriðason’s other fiction however there is more to the book than a simple plot as it explores several themes in some depth. The most obvious of these is the complicated relationship between Iceland and the US Army. The reluctance of the Icelandic people to accept the foreign army in their country informs Kirstin’s behaviour towards a former beau, Steve an American, who she turns to for help when she is caught up in the events taking place on Vatnajökull. At a government level there are economic and popularity considerations which compete to be taken into account before action can be taken. Although it’s fairly clear where Indriðason’s heart lies on this issue it is pleasing that he provides a strong character in the form of Steve to display an alternate view to the ‘Americans are evil’ theme.

A theme that doesn’t crop up terribly often in fiction but one Indriðason does seem to be particularly interested in is the relationships between siblings. Here Kirstin only becomes involved in the story and goes well beyond her comfort zone of physical endurance because she fears for the life of her younger brother and as the book progresses we learn more about why she feels so duty-bound to look out for Elias. In addition, one of the Americans who was involved in the very first search for the lost plane turns out to have had a similar reason for maintaining his interest in the search until the present search. There are glimpses too of other ideas that interest Indriðason such as the military hierarchy’s willingness to accept that torture is a legitimate means to an end as long as they can claim deniability (quite insightful given this novel was written long before newspaper headlines about gruesome torture being sanctioned at Gunatanamo Bay) and a hastily explored crack at privacy.

I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I bought it and found myself a bit skeptical when learning it was a thriller involving war-time secrets. However I found it a thoroughly entertaining yarn with the added bonus of more depth than you usually find in a thriller and far fewer explosions (which for me is a good thing).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Operation Naploeon has been reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence and The View from the Blue House

Earlier this year I reviewed Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia which remains in hot contention for my favourite book of the year. It’s a very different kind of book to this one!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5
Translator Victoria Cribb
Publisher Harvill Secker [this translation 2010, original edition 1999]
ISBN 9781846552854
Length 274 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in Arnaldur Indriðason, book review, Iceland. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Review: Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indriðason

  1. Kerrie says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this sometime.


  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    Thanks for your review Bernadette. I wasn’t sure if I was going to read this one, but now thanks to your review I probably will. BTW Hypothermia is also at the top of my list for favourite book of the year.


  3. Bernadette – Thanks for this fine review. I always think it’s especially admirable when an author of a series also writes well-done standalones. This one sounds very much worth adding to the TBR list…


  4. Rob says:

    Bernadette, did you really think the ending was this side of plausible? I didn’t quite short-circuit the house, as I know you’ve done, but I did let out a big groan! It could have ended plausibly by simply missing out the final scene.


  5. Maxine says:

    Good review, Bernadette. I found this a pretty average thriller, rather the type of book I read and enjoyed when I was about 12, when you got loads and loads of post-WW2 adventure stories of various stripes. (As ubiquitous as today’s vampires for teens, yuk, but much better topic!) I agree that the Iceland aspects (and the human family relationships) lifted it above average. I do think the basic plot was very clunky (and the solution obvious), and like Rob I found the last (and first) chapters unnecessary “hammering home”. My review of this is just awaiting one more pass before being submitted to Euro Crime.


  6. Rob and Maxine you’re both right, I should have said something about the final chapter which I agree was silly. I get so used to ignoring the final chapters of books though that I completely forgot about it when I was writing the review. At times I’ve almost decided to stop reading every book just before the final chapter because I hardly ever like them 🙂


  7. Dorte H says:

    I don´t mind explosions, it´s all the other parts of war I loathe. But I suspect that as the book has Arnaldur´s name on the cover, I´d also enjoy this one a lot. It´s like Jo Nesbø; even when he writes about a bank robbery, I am hooked.


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  11. John Hjalmarson says:

    I am over half way through the book, so maybe I shouldn’t comment yet, but. Operation Napoleon is a stretch. Totally unrealistic story. I was expecting more. Oh well, it is a long weekend, I’ll finish of the last 150 pages and see what happens.


  12. Anonymous says:

    Just 2.5 from me.


  13. Jack says:

    Im a sophmore writing a review on the book for my Language Arts class. I really liked it.


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