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Netflix’s ‘The Valhalla Murders’: a review

As I, along with most everyone else, have been stuck at home trying to avoid the Coronavirus, I've missed going to the movies. So I've had to feed my film addiction by watching TV. Here is my latest review of a television limited series that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In recent years, some of the most popular mystery novels have come from Scandinavian countries. From the Martin Beck novels of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and the Kurt Wallander novels of Henning Mankell – all of whom hailed from Sweden – to the Harry Hole novels of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, we’ve been entertained with all the intricacies of Scandinavian murder and police procedure.

Naturally, some of this has been adapted for movies and television. In 1973, Wahlöö and Sjöwall’s 1968 novel “The Laughing Policeman” was adapted for U.S. movie audiences, set in San Francisco of all places and starring Walter Matthau. More recently, Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” novels have been adapted both for Swedish and U.S. distribution.

And television, especially the more popular streaming services, haven’t been far behind. Even if you don’t subscribe to the services that specialize in mystery fare – BritBox, for example, or MHz Choice – you can find any number of crime series on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes and more.

One of my personal favorites is the four seasons of the original Swedish-Danish production “The Bridge,” which dates back to 2011 and involves a Swedish woman detective (played by Sofia Helin) who partners, over time, with two different Danish counterparts to solve a number of gruesome murders.

Since I’ve been more or less holed up at home over the past week – thank you, COVID-19 – I’ve been looking for other mysteries to watch. And that led me to the Netflix Original series “The Valhalla Murders.”

Originally commissioned by RUV – the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service – “The Valhalla Murders” aired in Iceland in 2019 and was released by Netflix this past March 13.

The series, which comprises eight episodes, is set in and around Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. It involves a police investigator named Kata (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) who is assigned a murder case that quickly becomes a serial-murder case. Assigned to assist her is Arnar (Björn Thors), an investigator who, though called in from Oslo, is a native Icelander.

As with all such programming, the storyline involves far more than merely a who-dunnit. As the police work diligently, mostly a step or two behind the murderer, they eventually discover not only who the perpetrator is but the source of why the crimes have been committed – which leads, gradually, to a far larger web of corruption in the country’s upper circles.

And all of it revolves around a long-ago-closed juvenile detention center called Valhalla.

Meanwhile, each of our protagonists faces personal challenges. The divorced and work-obsessed Kata has to deal with her officious Ex (and his much younger new wife) in their shared dealings with Kata’s 16-year-old son – dealings that become complicated after the boy attends a teen party in which a crime takes place.

For his part, Arnar still has family in Reykjavik. But he’s estranged from them, even from his sister who keeps calling him, telling him that their father is dying. And that estrangement is due to his family’s conservatively religious concerns and to his own troubled past, both of which are clearly connected.

Other than some essential plot points and basic character defects that “The Valhalla Murders” shares with other police-procedural series, though, I have only one real criticism: the subtitling. In some cases, the subtitles disappeared before we could read them; in other cases, there was no translation at all of what was likely important dialogue – leaving us to guess what was being said.

And, hey, I can’t even pronounce Icelandic, much less read it.

All that said, “The Valhalla Murders” – each episode of which runs a little more than 45 minutes – is definitely worth a binge-watch. A few years ago, my wife and I drove the entirety of Iceland’s Ring Road (scroll through the pages of The Spokesman-Review's now-defunct special section Platinum and you'll find my travel piece). It’s a breathtakingly beautiful country, in sunny weather or when covered in snow.

Even when accompanying a storyline involving a particularly ugly series of crimes, that natural beauty shines though.

Below: If you can't understand the language in the embed below, at least you can appreciate the visuals.