In a flat near Reykjavik city centre, a young man lies dead in a pool of blood. There is no sign of a break-in: the only clues are a woman's purple shawl, found under the bed in the next room, and a vial of prescription drugs in the victim's pocket.
When an author switches viewpoint in a long-running, popular series there's always a risk that some readers will be disappointed. Personally I find it can be one of the more satisfying uses of an ensemble cast, as was the case in OUTRAGE. Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason has switched the viewpoint away from his normal main character Erlendur, to one of the lesser characters in the earlier books - Detective Elinborg.
Erlendur is around, more by way of reference than physically, as he appears to have headed off to the East Fjords, where he lived as a young boy. Given his fractured family it's possibly not surprising that he's dropped off the radar, although there is something at the end of the book that may intrigue some readers. Sigurdur Oli is present in this book, but in a low-key way.
Elinborg is investigating the discovery of the body of a young man, throat slashed, lying on the floor of his own home. Whilst the woman's shawl found in the apartment makes sense as a possible clue, it's a lingering smell that tweaks Elinborg's interest. Readers of earlier books will know that Elinborg is particularly known for her cooking, and it's that private passion that makes that smell something that she can work with.
This book is really doing what often happens in a debut, introducing and expanding on a central protagonist. In earlier books Elinborg has been very much a bit player, so OUTRAGE really gives readers a chance to get to know more about another member of Erlunder's team. The downside of that is that the plot of the book does take a while to get going, although once underway, it's actually quite clever. And uses some interesting cultural perspectives along the way.
There's an ongoing thread in all of Indridason's books about the nature of family, parental guilt and the difficulties with balancing personal lives and work commitments. Earlier books have taken readers into the relationship that Erlendur struggles to maintain with his own children, and the death of his brother when they were both children and the impact that has on his every day life. This book looks at Elinborg's own difficulties balancing the roles of wife, mother and police detective. The case revolves around family as well - the family of the victim, as well as the family of the perpetrator all play a part. Particularly interesting for this reader was the subtle comparison between the young teenage son of Elinborg and his relationship with his mother, and the very different teenage boy and his different relationship with his own mother in the earlier life of the murder victim. As always this mix of the personal and the professional creates the opportunity for readers to find some way of connecting with these characters, and, as with the early Erlendur books there's a great feeling of place, and culture built into OUTRAGE.
Despite the different viewpoint, and despite the plot of the book taking a while to move into focus, OUTRAGE really is another excellent, atmospheric, intricate and fascinating book.
OPERATION NAPOLEON - Arnaldur Indridason
1945: A German bomber flies over Iceland in a blizzard; the crew have lost their way and eventually crash on the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe. Puzzlingly, there are both German and American officers on board. One of the senior German officers claims that their best chance of survival is to try to walk to the nearest farm and sets off, a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. He soon disappears into the white vastness. 1999, mid-winter, and the US Army is secretively trying to remove an aeroplane from the Vatnajökull glacier.
Reactions to an author taking a detour away from a much loved series, or style (or both for that matter) can vary. Some readers love the chance to head into new territory, others find that departure too much of a step, and long to return to the familiarity of the series, the known characters or the styling. And as with everything, for this reader, it all depends.
OPERATION NAPOLEON is a thriller, set in Iceland, but based around the mystery of a plane that went down at the very end of World War II. To take this that little bit further again from the Erlendur Sveinsson Crime Fiction series, this book also has a central female character. Kristin is pulled into a dangerous world of secrecy and power games when all she is trying to do is discover the truth behind her brother's fate - there on that remote glacier.
I suspect that whether or not a departure from the known works is often to do with the quality of the storytelling. OPERATION NAPOLEON is, undoubtedly, a thriller. There are lots of nefarious goings on, there's danger and conflict, there's the unknown of what was in that plane, why there is so much desire to find it, and claim what it is carrying. So whilst there are many of the elements that a thriller requires, and the pace and plot that supports the discovery of those elements, there are some quintessentially "Indridason" elements to the story. There are some wonderful characters that the reader can identify and sympathise with - it always helps to have somebody to be "barracking for".
There is also the way that this author always manages to weave the landscape and the culture of Iceland into his books, and the way that he uses family relationships as a basis for characterisation and exploration. In this case we have Kirstin and her brother, and the two brothers whose farm sits at the base of the glacier. The relationship between both sets of siblings is interesting - perhaps more tantalising in the case of the farmers, but undoubtedly the motivation for Kirstin's involvement.
There is a bit of a twist in the tail of this story though, and fans of alternative history may find the final proposition a little difficult to swallow or even maybe a little confronting. Given that the book declares itself pretty well as a thriller, this reader found OPERATION NAPOLEON less problematic than other stories of the same nature, having said that, alternative histories do make me twitch.
The good thing about OPERATION NAPOLEON is that it has the basic structure, and many of the required elements of a thriller, but with sufficient characterisation, and a great sense of place and culture that would make the book appeal to readers less fond of the pure thriller format, provided that aspect of rewriting history isn't too firmly in your pet hates listing.
HYPOTHERMIA - Arnauldur Indridason
One cold autumn night, a woman is found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage by Lake Thingvellir. At first sight, it appears to be a straightforward case of suicide; the woman, Maria, has never recovered from the loss of her mother two years earlier and had a history of depression. But when Karen, the friend who found her body, approaches Erlendur and gives him the tape of a séance that Maria had attended, his curiosity is aroused.
Less of a review - closer to a drool, HYPOTHERMIA is the latest in one of my all time favourite series of books from Icelandic author Arnauldur Indridason. If you've not read any of the earlier books, coming to HYPOTHERMIA from the start could still work, but part of what is really wonderful about this series is the slow unfolding of the backstory of the central detective Erlendur.
Erlendur is very much of the "rumpled / crumpled" detective genre - somebody who life has dealt some complicated hands to. Whilst he shuffles those cards, the reader is taken through his current life, his relationships with his estranged children, his childhood and his family tragedy. Still with that Nordic sense of constraint, thoughtfulness and introspection, there's also something lighter and hopeful in the sub-themes of HYPOTHERMIA, despite the puzzling suicide of a woman in a beautiful lakeside location. Her obsession with the loss of her mother, and the drowning of her father when she was a child takes Erlendur back to what happened to events from her childhood, somehow giving him permission (or the will) to explore his own history, and the death of his young brother in a blizzard many years before.
Within this series there has always been a strong sense of Icelandic culture and beliefs, from their particular personal name conventions in earlier books, to a real sense of the relationship between the present and the supernatural in this book in particular. And it's not just Erlendur's personal circumstances that leads to an exploration of the past and the present - there is often a theme within the books that pursues exactly the effect that past events (sometimes hidden, sometimes not) have on the current lives of many of the characters.
Along with the rumpled / crumpled detective styling, Erlendur has an admirable sense of justice and duty. He doesn't give up, he doesn't accept the obvious (in this case the rapid verdict of suicide) and he is prepared to stick to the task until the truth is revealed - no matter what the consequences. Having said that he, and this author, are not unaware of the effect of this sort of persistence. Grief, loss, guilt and confusion are beautifully illustrated, as is there often a cheeky sense of humour.
HYPOTHERMIA is an outstanding example of everything that is wonderful about crime. The book transports the reader to the place and the culture in which it is set, the landscape, the people, their particular way of looking at the world are woven into the threads of grief, loss, cause and effect seamlessly. There is pace to the story, alongside lyrical, beautiful storytelling and there are wonderful, believable, flawed characters to follow. Hopefully for lots of books to come.
ARCTIC CHILL - Arnaldur Indridason
On an icy January day the Reykjavik police are called to a block of flats where a body has been found in the garden: a young, dark-skinned boy, frozen to the ground in a pool of his own blood. The discovery of a stab wound in his stomach extinguishes any hope that this was a tragic accident.
There are some authors who are on my buy immediately list. Some of these books I can happily hoard - waiting until just the right moment to sit and enjoy them. And there are the ones that are buy and read immediately. ARCTIC CHILL has definitely been one of those books. As soon as it arrived in the house it danced around before my eyes until I could finish what I was reading and start this one.
And you know when you've picked up a fabulous book because you find yourself sitting in the car, reading it - "it's no problem I can wait in the car while you run in and do ......". You don't mind missing meals, you forget your favourite TV shows and you're finding excuses to miss meetings and social events so that you can just finish this book.
ARCTIC CHILL is also one of those unputdownable books because of the stylish way in which it scratches a number of itches - works on those points that I think make good crime fiction stand head and shoulders above many other possible reading options for me.
There's discussion and revelations of the society in which the crime occurs. In this case there is some stark observations of the difficulties of immigration within Icelandic society - from both the immigrants and the native resident viewpoint. The portrayal of both sides of the issue was fair, and deftly done - no preaching / no overt support for one side or the other. Many of these elements have considerable echoes with issues that arise in my own country, and the reminder that intolerance, suspicion as well as acceptance can be anywhere is both timely and pointed.
There's also one of those tremendous senses of place. Not just because Iceland is different climatically from elsewhere, but also in the way that the society itself is portrayed. Obviously it's a much smaller country than so many others, and their societal structures work differently from many that - for example - I'm used to. But the way that the Icelandic sensibility is portrayed in all of the Indridason books is revealing, without being a travelogue, too sentimental or too much of a documentary.
There are also great individual characters. The focus switches a little around a central group of police investigators all of whom take a different prominence throughout the individual stories, and throughout all the books. The central investigator though, the wonderfully rumpled, questioning, almost quixotic Erlendur always remains the central focus of the team though. His own personal background is complicated by the disappearance of his brother as children - an event that he has never fully come to terms with - and his divorce from his wife and separation from his children. All throught their adult years Erlendur and his two children have struggled to form a relationship which works for them all, and that struggle, whilst not taking over from the investigation or the crimes in each book, adds a level of sadness and somewhat unexpectedly hope to Erlendur.
And finally there's a good story about the death of a little boy. A child who it seems nobody could possibly have wanted dead. Unless there is a racial motive. Maybe revenge. The ultimate resolution is stark in what it says about the true nature of so much violent crime.
These books are definitely police procedurals, but they incorporate a lot of social commentary and personal insight. As atmospheric perhaps as Henning Mankell's Wallender series, Erlendur, however, isn't Wallender and there's a very different personality at work here. If you haven't read any of Arnaldur Indridason's fabulous books, then start somewhere with the series. If you can go back to the beginning, then you'll learn about him and his team as the books progress, but each also stands alone if you can't. The books so far have been:
Jar City (also published as Tainted Blood)
Silence of the Grave
The Draining Lake
LAST RITUALS - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out and a strange symbol carved on his body. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Thora is hired by his mother to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich.
Firstly, it has to be said - the book blurb doesn't do Reich any favours and if he was a real person he'd have every right to be slightly miffed about the description of himself as boorish. Sure he's a little stiff and formal in the early part of the book, but that's all it is - he's not boorish at all, and there is a twinkle of a teasing sense of humour that reveals itself as LAST RITUALS proceeds.
That sense of humour is part of what's notable about LAST RITUALS. The subject matter is quite dark, menacing and more than a little bit weird. The body of the young German student has been desecrated after death - the eyes gouged out. But before death, Harald has self-inflicted some odd body art and self-mutilation - all it seems, part of his deep and obsessive interest in witchcraft, magic and the absurd / the violent.
Thora and Matthew are investigating his death as Harald's family don't believe he was killed by his drug dealer - why, well that's probably not the point - and it's not dwelt on in the book. Matthew works for Harald's family and he's sent to Iceland, and because of Thora's background studying in Germany she's pulled into the investigation to assist. Matthew does need some help - he can't speak Icelandic and he struggles to understand the people and their customs plus he doesn't like eating fish that much - in a country where it's a staple food. So he's a bit grumpy and a bit at a loss. Mind you Thora doesn't have to deal with any of that, but she is as lost in the investigation as Matthew. They both agree with Harald's family that it doesn't seem like the drug dealer was involved, and it does look like his friends must have something to do with this - the magic society that they have formed is close and secretive and more than a little weird. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to understand Harald himself, and that's a path that's hard to take.
Sure the subject matter - or method of death for Harald is gruesome, and the magical customs and interests that he had in life are often-times gross and frequently just peculiar, but LAST RITUALS isn't automatically a gruesome and dark book. There is a deftness in the humour used, in the characterisations that lifts the book into something that you really can't help but get involved in. Even Harald, after death, is somebody that seems a bit lost, and there is definitely something odd in his relationship with his own family (and right through the family for that matter).
There's some romance in the relationship between Thora and Matthew that you can really see coming - but it's not overdone or cloying or overly sentimental - it fits right in with the two persona's, and it's tempered by happenings in Thora's own life that just felt so realistic that it worked. There is a heavy concentration on the history of Icelandic and German witchcraft - the magic and the rituals Harald is, after all, studying it as part of his course before he dies. Maybe that will annoy some readers a bit as the concentration is frequently on those components. This reader loved it as it fleshed out the people, fleshed out the world in which they operated and highlighted Harald's fascination and obsession.
SILENCE OF THE GRAVE - Arnaldur Indridason
Erlendur (who was first introduced to us in Tainted Blood (aka Jar City)) is called to the investigation of a skeleton, found in a shallow grave on an area that used to be open hills outside Reykjavik. When the skeleton was buried this was sparsely populated with a few summer chalets. Just to complicate matters the skeleton could also be from the time when there was a British and then American Army base in the area. It could be an Icelander who once got lost in the snow.
The investigation is complicated by the age of the burial; the slow and painstaking excavation of it by archaeologists; and by the location and the lack of information about any of the possible residents of that area. As Erlendur and his team slowly work through all the possibilities, the hills reveal they have had more than their fair share of family tragedy, brutality and heartache.
Erlendur is also confronted by the mess of his own family when his estranged daughter contacts him briefly, desperate for urgent help. As the investigation continues and Erlendur's family crisis continues there is a gradual revealing of many of the things that have happened in his own past - making him the person that he is today. Just in the same way as many of the events in the families who are eventually connected to the nearby Summer Chalet slowly reveal themselves.
SILENCE OF THE GRAVE is involving and highly compelling. The story of the investigation and the life of Erlendur are intertwined so that they provide both a contrast and also an explanation of how people become who they are or react like they do. Even in translation there's a feel in the writing of these books that is smooth, natural, hypnotic almost. In SILENCE OF THE GRAVE the story moves along until the later few chapters when the true circumstances behind the skeleton speed up the pace and the whole story is revealed. At the same time Erlendur's life is revealed.
TAINTED BLOOD (aka JAR CITY) - Arnaldur Indridason
Recently awarded a Golden Dagger for his second book in the series, Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indriadason's first book Tainted Blood, or Jar City as it was originally titled in English, is a taut, sparsely written police procedural set in a grey, cold and wet Reykjavik, Iceland.
An elderly man is murdered in his flat and initially it seems he has been the victim of a robbery gone wrong. Detective Erlendur is not so sure, based on a rather cryptic and inexplicable note found on the body and despite his colleagues amusement and scepticism, he continues to reject the easy solution.
Erlendur is a divorced, lonely fifytish, shambolic, disorganised man with family problems. His children are both drug-addicts, his daughter is a particular worry and his ex-wife will not have anything to do with him. He is increasingly suffering from chest pains and just does not look after himself, but he is saved from becoming a cliche by his self-awareness and his reactions to his family. He is frustrated by his daughter and as she attempts to draw closer he reacts against her and her life. When his ex-wife asks for help to look for the missing daughter of friends of his, he helps, but he is not really sure why he gets involved and he does not like what he finds when he does.
Iceland is also an unexpected setting. There are interesting points of difference in their culture not the least of which being everybody uses first names there, even in the telephone directory. Murder is not so common in Erlendur's Reykjavik but crime definitely doesn't seem to surprise anyone. Criminals are known to the police, and names and events are dragged up from many years ago that seem very vivid in everyone's memory.
As they investigate further, it is clear that the victim has a nasty past and whilst it seems that somehow that past has caught up with him, his cohorts from those days cannot be involved and the trail eventually leads Erlendur to a child's grave.
In many ways Tainted Blood is a very traditional police procedural with some interesting touches and twists. The writing is sparse, elegant and very visual. The plot is well constructed, a little predictable towards the end as the layers start to unfold, but the story by that stage is so sad and so compelling that you are drawn along regardless. The personal story of Erlendur does not detract from the investigation and adds a level to his personality that makes him feel like a real person that you can empathise with.
This is a good, solid police procedural with a compelling and real central Detective that avoids becoming a direct copy of his counterparts, Kurt Wallender and John Rebus, but could easily become somebody else to worry about.
THE DRAINING LAKE - Arnaldur Indridason
FROM THE BOOK: Following an earthquake, the water level of an Icelandic Lake suddenly falls, revealing a skeleton half-buried in its sandy bed. It has clearly been there many years. There is a large hole in the skull. Yet more mysteriously, it is weighted down by a heavy radio device bearing inscriptions in Russian.
The fourth book translated into English by this Icelandic author takes a wide sweep through Iceland and time in THE DRAINING LAKE. In the Cold War era bright, left-wing Icelandic students were sent to study in Communist East Germany. The only lead and possible connection between the recently discovered skeleton and these student activities is very tenuous in the first place - the Russian equipment the corpse must have been weighted down with is Erlendur's only possible clue to the dead man's identity. That and a series of missing person reports of men from around the same time. In such a small society it seems inconceivable that these men could have just gone missing, but those reports, a possible car and a very weak series of clues are worked long and hard by Erlendur and his team in an attempt to identify this man and find out the truth of his death.
In THE DRAINING LAKE Erlendur is slowly getting his life together, his children are still causing him confusion and pain, but he seems to be more able to understand the impact that his past is having on him - there's also the smallest glimmer of a future with somebody he is very attracted to. The other members of his team are dealing with their own ongoing lives and there's a nice sense of progress and things changing in the team, without it distracting overly from the central story. There's a bit of time-shifting in THE DRAINING LAKE as well as you move back to the students in East Germany and then forward to the current day events in Iceland.
I really love this series - the books have such a great sense of place and personality and THE DRAINING LAKE is holding up the same involving standard of the early books.