by Arnaldur Indridason
Published by Harvill Secker (UK)
320 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Ali Karim
Icelander Arnaldur Indridason is, in my opinion, one of the modern masters of the police procedural. I am certainly not alone in admiring his work; Indridason's novels have won a slew of awards not just in his homeland, but internationally as well. His Silence of the Grave (originally published as Grafar_ögn) picked up the British Crime Writers' Association's (CWA) Gold Dagger Award for Best Novel in 2005, blowing open a controversy that had been bubbling as a result of Silence being a translated work, rather than one written originally in English. (The result of that hullabaloo was that this year, the CWA -- with its new sponsor, Duncan Lawrie Private Bank -- gave out two Dagger Awards for Best Novel, one to a novel penned in English, the other to a translated work.) It should also be noted that Indridason has won Sweden's Martin Beck Award three years running, and picked up the Glass Key Prize, an award given by Skandinaviska Kriminalselskapet (Crime Writers of Scandinavia), two years in a row.
Attendees at Bouchercon 2006, to be held later this month in Madison, Wisconsin, will have the chance to meet Indridason, as Silence of the Grave has been shortlisted for a Barry Award, given out annually by Deadly Pleasures magazine. Curiously enough, the novel is competing in the category of Best British Novel Published in the UK.
But such commendations don't make clear why Indridason's thrillers, including his newest translated work, Voices (out this month in Britain), are so very bewitching. For the answers, we need instead to delve into the past, much as this author does in constructing his novels, in which the past so often catches up with the present, and where the banality of evil can be revealed by a detective boasting of insight and intellect.
The first of Indridason's novels, 2000's M_rin, was translated for U.S. release as Jar City (2005). That title can only be understood by reading the book, and to reveal its meaning here would probably spoil one of the most intriguing plot foils of this incredibly absorbing work. In the UK, the book was called Tainted Blood. It's among the most emotionally moving novels I have ever read, and one of the saddest police procedurals. Now, melancholic works of crime fiction from the Scandinavian region are not uncommon; Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and many others have ploughed that identical furrow. But Indridason is special, because he imbues his yarns with a palpable compassion for and an insight into the uneasy relationships that families conceal, and which they can never keep buried long enough. Credit must also be given to this author's translator, Bernard Scudder (no relation to Lawrence Block's famous sleuth), who tweaks Indridason's novels in such a manner that they feel like English novels set in Iceland, not foreign works being brought before an English-speaking audience. I should also point out that Indridason and Scudder are both such fine writers that they breathe solid, appealing life into the frigid world of death and the detectives who delve into the darker side of human nature.
Jar City/Tainted Blood details a probe into the murder of an elderly man, who had been killed in his apartment by a blow from a glass ashtray. The crime was apparently motiveless; yet as detectives pull at the threads of the present, they are led inexorably into the past, and what unravels there is a twisted trail of rape, murder and vileness as mundane as it is dangerous. Another theme of the novel is how island dwellers, such as the Icelanders, struggle with issues associated with their isolated gene pools and the dangers that a lack of genetic diversity can present. In the novel, we view the pain of humanity, as well as the empathy, gaining insight into those people for whom Fate throws mostly loaded dice. I never realized before that Reykjavik, Indridason's home town and Iceland's capital, could be so forbidding. Be warned, these books carry a chill that can't be blamed solely on the climate of their locales.
Adding to the appeal of Jar City/Tainted Blood and its two translated sequels is the mix of its four principal characters, figures who have now become etched into my subconscious and remain trapped there, reappearing on those many occasions when I think back on Indridason's evocative tales. Chief among that quartet is Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, referred to simply as Erlendur throughout the series. He's a man haunted by the competing specters of age, cigarettes, junk food and a loneliness brought on by his failed marriage and his continuing estrangement from a pair of grown-up children -- his drug-addicted daughter, Eva Lind, and Sindri, his recovering-alcoholic son, both of whom do regular battle with their inner demons.
Rounding out this quartet of characters are Erlendur's two Reykjavik Police subordinates, the U.S-educated criminology graduate Sigurdur Óli and policewoman Elínborg, as well as the DI's former boss and mentor, retired Detective Marion Briem, who is not enjoying his "golden years" and so keeps close tabs on Erlendur, much to his irritation. The dynamic of these three other cops, plus Erlendur at the hub of their working relationship, maintains the pace of Indridason's procedurals, as every player comes at an investigation from different angles and perspectives. There is also a dark humanity to what they do, because you feel that, as dysfunctional as the world can often be, these four are battling for a noble cause -- to learn the truth in situations more shaded by grays than colored in black and white.
Even having experienced that first Indridason novel, I wasn't prepared for its sequel, Silence of the Grave. Told in a split narrative, it shares with its predecessor the theme that acts and events from history reverberate into the present. In one story thread, we learn of human bones being discovered, and Erlendur and his team investigating; the other narrative follows a downtrodden young woman, her two children (one of whom is handicapped) and her abusive and violent husband. These story lines eventually collide, and when they do, the detective inspector and his people have to decide how to act when the law finds itself unequal to making moral measurements. Silence claims a narrative structure similar to that of Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season (1999), and were I to compare Indridason's work with that of any British-born writer, it would have to be Robinson's, because Alan Banks, like Erlendur, is prone to mining the emotions of people who live and work at the edges of society; yet both detectives still cling with determination to their eroding humanity.
So now we come to Voices (which was published in Iceland in 2003 as Röddin). It's a grim-edged mystery set mostly in a large, classy Reykjavik hotel. There, Gudlauger Egilsson, the doorman-cum-handyman, is found stabbed viciously to death in his basement room. He's still dressed in his Santa Claus outfit, prepared to entertain a group of children, but a condom dangles surreally from his flaccid penis. Summoned to investigate, Erlendur, Óli and Elínborg converge upon the festively decorated premises. It's not a good time for DI Erlendur; he can't face spending Christmas alone in his flat, which he would rather do than join in festivities with his daughter, Eva (who by now has successfully kicked her drug habit, following the still-birth of her child). Instead, the inspector takes a room in the hotel to blot out Christmas and focus on the murder investigation. It's there that his no less lonely mentor, Briem, calls on him, wanting to help him solve the Gudlauger case.
Soon enough, Erlendur discovers that the late Santa stand-in was in fact a former child-prodigy choirboy, who had spent his adult life as a lowly odd-jobs man at the hotel. Meanwhile, Elínborg is distracted by the concurrent case of a schoolboy who was badly beaten by a gang of young bullies. She senses something wrong, even sinister, about the victim's father, a businessman facing bankruptcy and known for his violent temper. The theme of family conflict is again mined in these pages, everyone in Indridason's imagination being cursed by fractured and dysfunctional relationships with those who share their genes. This includes the justly dour Erlendur, who is reminded in Voices of a tragedy from his own history, one that shaped his worldview and is the reason he searches the world for answers. Like Indridason's previous two novels, Voices virtually drips with sadness and misery. The setting of a hotel at Christmastime makes for a splendid backdrop. As the Icelandic cops delve into the Gudlauger homicide, they must piece together the fragments of the deceased's tragic existence. Although the hotel staff close ranks, hoping to keep the murder under wraps, divisions soon appear as rumors of large-scale thefts and organized prostitution surface. Gudlauger's sinister relatives make appearances, and they reveal just enough to pique Erlendur's doubts. I found it particularly amusing that the author should place a British hotel guest, Henry Wapshott, a wealthy record collector (with an unhealthy taste for young boys), under intense suspicion for the crime. Wapshott is the classic British "cad." (Were it not for the fact that Voices/Röddin saw print before the CWA controversy, I'd have thought Wapshott's involvement here a deliberate "fuck you" response.) Voices is replete with such wonderfully flawed characters, and among them are Indridason's series sleuths, because it takes a flawed person to see clearly the cracks in others.
Viewing the world through Erlendur's darkened eyes gives insight that at times makes you want to weep:
Erlendur shut the door. He sat down on the bed and thought about the choirboy and how he found him in a Santa suit with his trousers round his ankles. He wondered how his path had led to that little room and to death, at the end of a life paved with disappointment.
At least Indridason shows a little compassion for the world-weary Erlendur by teeing up a budding relationship between him and a female forensic officer, the middle-aged Valgerdur. Of course, nothing is simple in this author's vision; Erlendur's interest in Valgerdur draws him into a new conflict with daughter Eva. But it's about time Erlendur found a spot of happiness, after all that he's gone through in his life.
I cannot recommend Voices, or its two predecessors, highly enough. To be uplifted in this life, sometimes you have to drink from the well of the melancholic and fractured, and that's what is on the menu here. Arnaldur Indridason and Bernard Scudder have emerged as giants of this genre. But beware, the grip of their works is as icy as it is addictive. | September 2006
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine contributor, he's also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes for both Deadly Pleasures and Crime Spree magazines. Karim is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers' Association and the International Thriller Writers. He's currently working on Black Operations, a violent science-fiction-tinged thriller.