Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 330 pages; 2012. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s Black Skies, the latest of his work to be translated into English, was first published in his native Iceland in 2008. The time frame is important, because the story is set shortly before the global financial crisis of September 2008 in which Iceland fared so very badly. I’m not sure whether the author wrote the book in the immediate aftermath, or whether he was just incredibly prescient, but the story makes constant reference to people living beyond their means. The main villains also happen to be bankers.
Sigurdur Óli takes centre stage
What is perhaps more interesting is that Black Skies covers the same time period as his last novel, Outrage, so that the crime being investigated in that novel is mentioned in passing in this one. And, just as in Outrage, the morose detective Erlunder — the usual star of this Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series — is still on a leave of absence. That gives the series’ other main detective, Sigurdur Óli, the chance to take centre stage.
Admittedly, Sigurdur Óli is my least favourite character in previous novels I have read — he’s too opinionated, lacks attention to detail, goes at things like a bull in a china shop. But it is a credit to Indriðason’s skill as a novelist that he makes him more rounded, more human, more empathetic in this story. We get to find out more about his background and his upbringing, and in doing so we learn not just of his weaknesses, but his strengths too.
When the story opens, he is attending a high school reunion, which makes him question his decision to remain in the police force. All his friends are making money, taking advantage of Iceland’s economic boom, while he’s dealing with the country’s low-lifes. His depressive outlook isn’t helped by the fact that his long-term relationship with Bergthóra has finally crumbled because of their inability to have children and his hard-working father has just been diagnosed with prostrate cancer.
Drawn into an investigation by accident
But Sigurdur Óli has a particular weakness. When people ask for a favour, he cannot say no. He spends hours on a tedious and trivial (and from this reader’s point of view, hiliarious) stakeout, trying to track down a newspaper thief on behalf of his mother’s friend. And when an old classmate from high school asks him to warn off a pair of blackmailers, he does so — in an unofficial capacity, thereby putting his career on the line in the process — only to find himself drawn into a mysterious murder investigation involving wife-swapping and incriminating photographs showing illicit sex.
Meanwhile, in a dual narrative, a local middle-aged drunk wreaks revenge on the now elderly step father who destroyed his childhood. He leaves Sigurdur Óli a package containing a mysterious strip of film, which is 12 seconds long, as a tip-off.
These two disparate crimes come together in a most unexpected — and satisfying — way at the very end of this superb police procedural about greed, depravity and murder.
As ever, Indriðason is not afraid to depict the grotty underbelly of Icelandic life in an unsentimental, almost cold and detached, way. Yet he writes with such skill and diplomacy that it’s hard not to come away from his work feeling more empathetic and more compassionate towards one’s fellow human beings. Despite being books about death, there’s something truly life-affirming about Indriðason’s work.
Note, this is the eighth novel in the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, but you don’t need to have read any of the previous titles to appreciate this one — it reads pretty much as a standalone.
10 thoughts on “‘Black Skies’ by Arnaldur Indriðason”
I ve still not read him yet I ve artic chill on my shelf ,nice know it could be read as a standalone ,I ll have get started with his books at some point as there is eight to get through ,all the best stu
Do you read crime, stu?
I’m so behind on these novels, I really need to catch up on them I really quite enjoy them.
I’ve had a bit of a binge and read two in the space of a couple of months; I find they are perfect reads when I have a lot of other stuff going on in my life, because they’re quite easy to digest.
I don’t read crime novels, but I’m tempted to try one of these, just for a taste of the locale…
If youre going through an Icelandic phase you MUST read Indriðason — not necessarily this one; I think his earlier work is more evocative of place.
I’d never thought that much of Sigurdur Óli but I liked hi in this book, despite his flaws. Bring bark Erlunder though…
Yes, I hope Erlunder makes a return in the next novel. There’s a couple of references to him in this one. His daughter, for instance, contacts Sigurdur Óli out of the blue to ask if he may have heard from her father, because she is worried about him. There’s a sense of doom about him, a kind of fear that he may be depressed enough to take his own life… But surely Indriðason wouldn’t kill off his main character ???
well this series is going on the wishlist then. Ever since reading Yrsa Siguarddottir (I hope I have got that right) and her first novel there is something about Iceland – which I am off to at the end of next month – and crime and the atmopshere that I really like. Maybe I should pack the first in this series in my bag for the trip?
Oh, enjoy your trip to Iceland. I went about 10 years ago now — in winter — and absolutely loved it. I have a category for books from Iceland (menu bar down bottom right somewhere) if you are looking for further inspiration.