‘Hypothermia’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

Hypothermia

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!

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13 thoughts on “‘Hypothermia’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

  1. I’m glad you liked this one, Kim. I agree that it is better than Arctic Chill (which seemed a bit flat compared with others in the series). Either this one or The Draining Lake is my favourite – I like The Draining Lake for its historical story of Leipzig politics/romance in the 1950s, and for its dry humour as Erlunder and co go round the embassies and deal with associated pompous types.

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  2. oh I ve artic chill to read and know read it isn’t best might get this one as you seem keener on this than that.I like the sound of this and iceland is perfect for a crime novel bleak ,yet its people so colourful at time ,all the best stu

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  3. I think I like Voices better than Draining Lake, perhaps because the setting/time period (a hotel at Christmas with a man dressed as Santa the murder victim) is more memorable. But, to be honest, they are all good reads. I just felt that Hypothermia was quite exceptional in terms of plotting and themes.
    Do you know when the next one will be released? I’m assuming there’s one due this year…

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  4. Hi Stu, if you’ve not read any in the series before then start with Arctic Chill. My problem with that particular book was that it rehashed a lot of back story that readers of the series were already familiar with. It’s still a good read, but Hypothermia is exceptionally good.

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  5. I just bought this book last month on a 3 for 2, Kim! Iceland is one of my favourite places I’ve been to so I was drawn to it because of that. I’m really looking forward to it now – I love a good crime fic!

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  6. I’ve only read Jar City and this one (though plan on reading the ones in the middle) and while Jar City didn’t quite do it for me I have to agree with your take on this one – and you’re right it is a bit like magic the way he makes it such an emotional book without being all soppy. Clever man.

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  7. Iceland is pretty cool, isn’t it? *boom boom*
    But seriously, I went there in early noughties and loved it. Swimming the blue-lagoon while it snowed is one of my fondest memories!!
    Perhaps this is why I enjoy this series of books so much — it reminds me of a really special holiday.

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  8. He is clever… It has a terrific emotional wallop at the end, which I did not foresee coming at all. I’m still thinking about it a week later…

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  9. I used to be quick to read the Indridasun too, but Jar City was easily my favorite. I enjoyed Silence of the Grave, but I didn’t love it. I’m not even sure if I finished the third one. Perhaps I’ll start again with this one and skip over the ones you weren’t as crazy about!

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  10. Jar City is easily my favourite too. I think it was just so different to any other crime novel I’d ever read, and the setting was so atmospheric, that it left a deep impression. I like all his novels, but some are clearly just that little bit better than others.

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  11. Heard so much good things about this one and yearn to read something from Scandinavia or better still Iceland!! You are quite close to make me pick this up in impulse and throw away my reading plan for this month! 😀

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