Fresh Meat: Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason’s Operation Napoleon book cover
Operation Napoleon
I’ve come to believe Arnaldur Indridason (Indriðason) has given himself the task of reminding us that Iceland’s perspective is unique in the world. And I’m glad he’s taken on the job. He’s really good at it.

Indridason’s international reputation was made with his Inspector Erlendur crime novels, beginning with Jar City, a 2000 sensation in Europe that finally reached American readers in 2004. (There are 11 in the series, including two that preceded Jar City, but only seven are available in English.)

And now there’s Operation Napoleon, a stand-alone thriller quite different from Indridason’s previous novels. Originally published in Iceland in 1999, it’s about to make its U.S. debut in translation.

The story involves a mysterious military plane crash on an Icelandic glacier in 1945 at the tail end of World War II. Almost as quickly as it falls from the sky, the aircraft is buried by a blizzard; effectively swallowed by Vatnajökull glacier. Barely a peep is heard about it, until we flash forward to 1999 when the glacier shifts—as glaciers do—and the missing plane resurfaces, putting the U.S. military on high alert. Sort of.

[General Carr] stalked down the long corridor to his office and shut the door behind him. A light was flashing on his phone.

“Ratoff on line two,” said a disembodied voice. Carr frowned and punched the button.

“How long will it take for you to get to Keflavík?” Carr asked without preamble.

“What’s Keflavík, sir?” queried the voice on the phone.

“Our base in Iceland,” answered Carr. … “We’ve received a clear image of the biggest glacier in the country. It seems to be returning an object to us which we lost there many years ago….”

“Keflavík. I remember now. Wasn’t there some wild goose chase there in ’67?”

“We have better satellites these days.”

“Are the coordinates the same?”

“No. This is a new location. That damn glacier keeps moving.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the U.S. military are not the good guys in Operation Napoleon.

We see this most clearly through the eyes of Kristín, an attorney with the Icelandic Foreign Ministry. She embodies the taut tolerance Icelanders had for the American military presence in Iceland from World War II until 2006, when U.S. Naval Air Station Keflavík was officially deactivated. (Although Keflavík is now Reykjavík’s international airport, it was built as a military airfield by the United States in the 1940s.)

Kristín’s involvement in the mission to recover the aircraft—or indeed, to re-cover it, since the Americans would have been just as happy if it had stayed buried forever—is unlikely. Yet, involved she is, and it quickly becomes clear to her that no one can be trusted, least of all the Americans, who lie to each other as smoothly and systematically as they lie to the Icelanders.

What exactly was on that plane? Depends on whom you ask. The explanation changes as each new piece of evidence is revealed and the truth isn’t confirmed until the very last page.

The jacket blurb recommends Operation Napoleon to fans of Clive Cussler and Alistair MacLean, presumably because Cussler wrote Iceberg and MacLean Ice Station Zebra. Well, brr. That comparison is too superficial, just as the blurbs comparing the Inspector Erlendur books to…wait for it…Henning Mankell (Pfft!) is too facile. Which is not to say that Operation Napoleon won’t captivate fans of techno-thrillers. It will. There’s plenty of action and intrigue here. But this being an Icelandic thriller, its perspective is unique—and that makes it more captivating by far.

Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.

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