Review: THE WANDERER, by Michael Ridpath, published by Corvus Books


Michael Ridpath is one of those writers who consistently managed thoughtful, entertaining, deeply atmospheric stories. He was originally a bond trader in the City of London, but after eight years and the massively successful thriller FREE TO TRADE, he gave up that job and turned to writing full time.

I am very glad he did because he has written some of the most inventive thrillers of recent years.

His latest book takes us back to Iceland with Michael’s detective Magnus Jonson.

Magnus is Icelandic, but when he was young his father took his brother and him to go and live in Boston. While there his father was murdered, which later in life gave Magnus the incentive to join the police. On secondment some years ago he had been sent to Iceland, where he worked with the Reykjavik police. While there he formed a relationship, but that broke up due to the woman’s infidelity. Bruised, he returned to the US. But he feels alien, no matter where he lives. He doesn’t feel American, and he isn’t Icelandic either, although he is fluent in English and Icelandic. Perhaps it is this awareness of his own difference that makes him a good detective: perceptive and alert to other people’s mannerisms, their foibles and behaviour. But his humanity and empathy make him a strong and attractive character.

This book begins with a film crew making a documentary about Gudrid the Wanderer, a legendary Viking woman who is said to have discovered America. The presenter, Eyglo, has studied Gudrid for years, and after she presented another programme on the Vikings, is now in demand as a Viking expert.

Fresh evidence of Gudrid’s journeys have appeared. Archeological evidence discovered on Greenland at a dig, and the discovery of a letter in an obscure volume in the Vatican library is bringing to life a new theory about Columbus and his journey of discovery that led to Europe finding the New World. What if Columbus was told of a vast continent that the Vikings from Iceland had discovered centuries before? What if his greatest achievement, a matter of pride to Italians, was shown to be a matter of following a map given to him. It was no discovery at all.

Many who would be affected by this. Academics and historians who had based their entire working lives on the study of Columbus would not want to have their hero’s memory traduced or ridiculed, because that would reflect on them too. Many would have reasons to prevent such a story emerging. 

But the crew have other issues to deal with, rather than potentially upsetting Columbus’s supporters. The weather, a tight schedule, finances, all will affect the team. Until, that is, Eyglo discovers the body of a young Italian tourist behind a small church. But was the woman merely a tourist, or was she known the people in the documentary? 

At the same time an elderly man has been beaten and knocked senseless in a remote cottage, but when Magnus visits him to try to help find the assailant, the old man refuses to help. When Magnus meets his daughter, it is clear that the she and her father are both reluctant to trust the police – any police. What is it that has made them so distrustful?

Michael has once again created a tight crime thriller with a marvellous cast of characters: the presenter, anxious about her finances and supporting her son; the academic, aloof but a womaniser, whose wife knows about his infidelities and has demanded that he stop; the producer who knows that she must finish this film on time and within budget, because her company is teetering on the brink of financial collapse, and that may mean the end of her marriage as well; the American academic whose reputation could be ruined. All are believable, strong characters.

Highly recommended.

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