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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Book Advent Calendar (Day Nine) - Arnaldur Indriðason's Detective Erlendur Series

Day Nine of my Book Advent Calendar means an author with a surname beginning with “I”.  I’ve decided on an Icelandic crime novelist, Arnaldur Indriðason.  This time, instead of recommending one particular book, I’m recommending his entire Detective Erlendur series.  There are nine titles which have been translated into English; I strongly suggest they be read in order:  
1. Tainted Blood  or Jar City (2004)
2. Silence of the Grave (2005)
3. Voices (2006)
4. The Draining Lake (2007)
5. Arctic Chill (2008)
6. Hypothermia (2009)
7. Outrage (2011)
8. Black Skies (2012)
9. Strange Shores (2013)

The first two books in the series, Sons of Dust (1997) and Silent Kill (1998), have not yet been translated.  Two other books have been added, but both are actually prequels to the series:  Reykjavik Nights (2014) and Oblivion (2015).  These I have not read. 

The nine I have read in the series are outstanding because not only do they have interesting plots and fully-developed characters, they rise above run-of-the-mill crime novels, combining suspense with insights into the human condition.  Here’s my review of the concluding book in the series, but be forewarned:  you might not want to read the review before having read all the books in the series.

Day Nine:  Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indriðason
4 Stars
Having read and enjoyed the entire series of Icelandic mysteries by Indridason, I was excited when this latest installment was translated. Erlendur, the unhappiest of detectives, made no appearance in the last two novels and, sadly, this will apparently be his last.

Erlendur is in remote northeastern Iceland where he lived until his younger brother disappeared in a snowstorm. Erlendur feels responsible for what happened to his brother Bergur but has borne “his guilt in silence” (181). Nevertheless he “came back for a visit every so often when he felt the urge” (11). During one of those visits, he has an encounter which sets him to investigating the disappearance of a woman in a snowstorm sixty years earlier. “Innate curiosity and an obsession with missing-persons’ cases had led him to delve more deeply into an ancient incident than he had ever intended, but he hadn’t been seeking out a crime: in this instance the crime had found him” (204-205).

Of course, the investigation into Matthildur’s death parallels Erlendur’s search for answers to what happened to Bergur: “His sole intention was to uncover the truth in every case, to track down what was lost . . . ” (221). And every night Erlendur returns to the derelict farmhouse which had been his childhood home: “part of him would forever belong to this place, a witness to the helplessness of the individual when confronted by the pitiless forces of nature” (21).

Though the book is a mystery, it is also an examination of loss and grief: “When a loved one went missing time changed nothing. Admittedly, it dulled the pain, but by the same token the loss became a lifelong companion for those who survived, making the grief keener and deeper . . .” (280). It is this observation that explains much of Erlendur’s behaviour, both in terms of Matthildur’s case and in terms of his choice at the end.

Sadness permeates the entire novel. Obviously, the loss of Matthildur and Bergur overshadows all events: the “dismal plight” of survivors “doomed to live on in the wreckage” and relationships “denied a chance to blossom” (188-189). There is also, however, the loss of Iceland’s past and the destruction of her pristine environment. At one point Erlendur observes, “He couldn’t understand how on earth an unaccountable multinational, based far away in America, had been permitted to put its heavy industrial stamp on a tranquil fjord and tract of untouched wilderness here in the remote east of Iceland” (8). Later, he bemoans the loss of “the old Icelandic storytelling tradition . . . linking man to his environment . . . [and instilling] respect for the land and the forces latent within it” (38).

There are some unlikely coincidences that tarnish the plot, but the book is a fitting ending to the series. What happens may surprise some readers, but I found the ending is perfectly in keeping with Erlendur’s character as developed throughout this series. In fact, I would argue that this ending was inevitable from the very beginning.