Fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 320 pages; 2009. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Ever since discovering Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series in 2006, I’ve made a point of reading each new release as soon as they have been published in paperback. (All my reviews are on my Arnaldur Indriðason page.)
But with Hypothermia, published in 2009, I left it a bit longer than usual to purchase, mainly because I’d been slightly disappointed with his last outing, Arctic Chill.
But this new novel, the sixth book starring the morose Icelandic police detective Erlunder, is a welcome return to form. Indeed, I wonder if it isn’t his best book yet.
The story is less a police procedural and more a tale about laying ghosts of the past to rest. It ties together multiple story lines involving missing people and murder victims spanning more than 30 years, but does it in such an effortless way it’s not until you reach the last page that you begin to appreciate Indriðason’s magnificent skill as a crime writer, novelist and social commentator.
Hypothermia opens with the suicide of a woman, María, who is found hanging from a beam in her holiday cottage. Her husband Baldvin, a GP, claims she was depressed and still grappling with the death of her own mother two years earlier.
But Detective Erlunder isn’t quite sure that all is as it seems. His curiosity is aroused when María’s best friend gives him a tape recording of María at a seance. He can’t explain it, but he knows that something is not quite right.
He begins poking around in María’s past — her father died in a boating accident when she was a young girl and she developed an incredibly strong bond with her mother as a result — but treads very carefully in order not to arouse suspicion. His investigations are never made official.
Alongside his off-the-record enquiries about María, Erlunder begins investigating two unsolved missing persons cases from the past: a boy in his last year of sixth-form college, who disappeared in February 1976, and a girl studying biology at university, who was reported missing a few weeks later. The two cases have never been linked, but Erlunder begins to wonder if they should be.
“People don’t just walk out of their homes and disappear. They always leave some trace. Except in these two cases. That’s what they have in common. There’s no trace. We have nothing to go on. In either case.”
Things must be quiet on the Reykjavík crime front, because for the entire novel Erlunder does not carry out one official task, either in the suicide case or the missing persons’ case: everything is done on the sly and his colleagues, Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, who normally have starring roles, are only referenced in passing.
Indeed, this novel focuses very much on Erlunder’s own personal history in a way that has not been addressed in any of Indriðason’s previous novels. As well as talking about the loss of his own brother who went missing in a snow storm when Erlunder was a child (an incident which plays a central role in each of the books in the Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series), for the first time Erlunder has face-to-face dealings with his ex-wife, Halldora.
They might have been divorced for decades, but Halldora’s bitterness resonates off the page. Her total lack of responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage is echoed in so many of the other characters that Erlunder meets in the course of his investigations: Maria’s mother blames her husband for bringing his death upon himself; and Maria’s husband blames Maria for her own situation.
Indriðason does this a lot in this novel: there are constant recurring themes and motifs, particularly of lakes (Maria’s father drowned in one, the missing girl had an obsession with them), hypothermia (its power to kill, both accidentally and on purpose), suicide (“the act itself frequently came as a total shock and could be committed by people of all ages: adolescents, the middle-aged and elderly”), the after-life (does it exist and how do you prove it?), and being haunted by ghosts, both physical and metaphorical (“You have to free yourself from this ghost,” Eva Lind, Erlunder’s daughter, tells him, referring to the loss of his brother; “It’s because of Maria; she’s haunting me like an old ghost story,” Erlunder tells Baldvin, when he wants to know why Erlunder is hassling him about her suicide.)
Of course the genius comes in linking all these disparate threads together, so that one informs the other. While the conclusion to Hypothermia was somewhat predictable I found it a satisfying, wholly believable one.
But what made this book truly work for me was the way in which Indriðason makes you genuinely feel for the victims and the parents of the missing. How he achieves this is a kind of magic, because his writing style is so understated and sparse it seems devoid of emotion. And yet, by the time you reach the last page, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in your throat…
If the rest in the series are as good as this (according to wikipedia, there are three more published in Icelandic yet to be translated into English), then boy do we have a future treat in store!