Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…

Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Black Skies’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


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.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Outrage’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 290 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Anne Yates.

Outrage is the seventh book in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, which normally stars the morose detective Erlunder. But having taken a leave of absence, Erlunder’s female colleague, Elínborg, is star of the story instead. It makes for a refreshing change — and a cracking read.

A murdered man

The main plot goes something like this: a telecoms engineer, Runólfur, is found dead in his flat. His throat has been slashed, he is wearing a woman’s too-small t-shirt and his trousers are around his ankles. Later it is discovered that he has taken a large quantity of the date-rape drug rohypnol.

The police believe that he may, in fact, be a rapist and that his murder is a revenge killing. But was he murdered by someone he had raped in his apartment that night, or was it another victim from his secret past?

In this straightforward police procedural Elínborg carries out a painstaking investigation, almost single-handedly. She follows her nose — literally — because the one major clue is a woman’s shawl, found under Runólfur’s bed, which smells, strangely, of Tandoori spices.

During her hunt for the killer, Elínborg interviews Runólfur’s neighbours, colleagues, clients and old friends, trying to build up a picture of his rather mysterious life. She even flies to a remote Icelandic village to meet Runólfur’s mother. But just when you think she’s no closer to finding the killer than when she first started out, the pieces begin to fall into place. The ending is a surprising, but plausible, one.

Elínborg takes centre stage

I had expected to miss Erlunder’s presence in the story, but I found Elínborg a more than adequate substitute. Indeed, I enjoyed finding out about her family life — married with three children and a foster child — and her love of cooking (if you have followed the series, you may recall that in The Draining Lake she is busy promoting a cookbook). She’s also incredibly likable.

As usual in Indriðason’s work, the fast-paced book has an undercurrent of social commentary — mainly about the abhorrent crime of rape, the grubbiness of police work and the need to treat all victims, regardless of their character, in the same way. And it puts the crime into context, exploring its outfall, not just on the victim and perpetrator, but on others caught up in events, past and present.

If you’ve never read this series before, then Outrage may be the place to start — it reads like a standalone and you don’t need to know any of Erlunder’s troubled back history to fully appreciate it.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, CCV Digital, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Hypothermia’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


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!

10 books, Book lists

10 books where location is key

10-booksI’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.

But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.

Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

CrimsonPetalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.

EightMonths Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel

Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.

Forever Forever by Pete Hamill

New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

Offshore Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.

Shiralee The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland

The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.

SongsOfBlueandGold Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.

TaintedBlood Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.

ThatTheyMayFace That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

Tenderness The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Yacoubian The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

 So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Arctic Chill’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb.

This is the fifth book in Arnaldur Indriðason‘s police procedural series set in Reykjavík that has been translated into English. As usual it stars the morose detective Erlendur and his colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, and revolves around two separate investigations — the murder of a young Thai boy and the disappearance of a married woman.

The first (and main) storyline poses a shocking question up front: was the murder of Elias, the schoolboy, found dead from a knife wound, racially motivated? As the police officers make their inquiries they uncover racial tensions within the local school community — one teacher holds strong views about immigration, for instance, and immigrant pupils are rumoured to be ostracized and bullied by their Icelandic counterparts — which belies Iceland as a cosy, welcoming and liberal nation.

But there are other possibilities too: a suspected paedophile has been spotted in the area and may be responsible. Or was it Elias’ older brother, Niran, who has gone into hiding? And what about Elias’ mother, a Thai divorcee, who is rumoured to have a secret lover — could he be the murderer?

I’m obviously not going to give the plot away, suffice to say that over the course of some 350 pages Erlundur and his cohorts dig around every conceivable lead, uncovering the odd red herring or two, which makes for an exciting read.

The second narrative thread, in which a husband reports his second wife’s disappearance, takes a back seat to the murder investigation, but it adds an additional layer of interest and ratchets up the excitement level by a notch or two.

Despite the cracking storylines, I found this book slightly wearisome. I’m beginning to think I may have just read one too many in this series, because the back story associated with Erlundur’s troubled past — the death of his younger brother when he was a child, his marriage split, his daughter’s drug addiction — was so familiar to me. Of course, Indriðason has to work these references in for the benefit of first-time readers, so he’s forgiven, but it does wear thin if you’ve read the four preceding novels, even with the slight character development that’s apparent.

Still, if you’re looking for a crime novel that’s easy to read, entertaining and has a social conscience, this will tick all the required boxes.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Draining Lake’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 312  pages; 2007. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Icelandic journalist turned crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason became a firm favourite of mine when I read his brilliant novel Tainted Blood (also known as Jar City) back in 2006. The book was a refreshing change to the normal formulaic crime books I’d read in the past, and the setting — the Icelandic capital Reykjavik — added an “exotic” touch.

Of course there has been somewhat of an explosion in Scandinavian crime fiction since then, but it is Indriðason to whom I feel most loyal. Indeed, I have made a point of buying each new novel as it has been released, and The Draining Lake was no exception, although it did languish in my reading queue for about six months.

This is the fourth Reykjavik murder mystery — starring the grumpy but troubled detective Erlunder — to be translated into English. It is typical Indriðason fare but for some reason I didn’t find the story as gripping as the others that preceded it.

As usual, the crime being investigated is an old one — in this case a half-buried skeleton found in a lake after it drained as the result of an earthquake. The skull has been caved in and the bones weighted down by a Russian radio device. Forensics believe the skeleton to have lain in its position for 40 or 50 years.

The police, under the direction of Erlunder, begin their investigation by looking at missing person files.

Intertwined with this relatively straightforward police procedural narrative is a second storyline involving a group of Icelandic students studying at a German university during the Cold War. It is clear that one of these students is the skeleton that turns up Lake Kleifarvatn, so half the fun for the reader is trying to guess which one. But Indriðason plays his cards close to his chest and clues are few and far between.

While I found large parts of The Draining Lake rather dull — perhaps a product of my circumstances, rather than of the author’s work (I’m living out of a suitcase while my flat is being renovated) or the fact that anything to do with the Cold War usually leaves me, well, cold — I did very much enjoy how Indriðason had moved the characters on from the last book. Erlunder is still struggling to maintain a steady relationship with his drug-addicted daughter while his long lost son returns to the fold. And the budding romance that began with a female biotechnician in Voices also takes a new turn.

Other familiar characters have also been nicely developed — Elinborg is promoting a cook book, while Sigurdur Oli is dealing with a bereaved husband whose wife and child were killed in a traffic accident. It’s also refreshing to have the story set in an Icelandic summer, when the sun never sets, instead of the cold, dark, snowy Reykjavik that has appeared in previous books in this series.

But on the whole I did not feel The Draining Lake was up to Indriðason’s usual high standards — although I’ll still be the first in the queue to buy the next one!

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Voices’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 344  pages; 2007. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Voices is the third Arnaldur Indriðason book to be translated into English featuring the troubled detective Erlunder. Set in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, it’s a powerful police procedural that pulls no punches in its depiction of a sordid crime and its aftermath.

The story opens with the murder of a hotel doorman in the room in which he has lived for the past 20 years.

The man was sitting on the bed, leaning against the wall. He was wearing a bright red Santa suit and still had the Santa cap on his head, but it had slipped down over his eyes. A large artificial Santa beard hid his face. He had undone the thick belt around his waist and unbuttoned his jacket. Beneath it he was wearing only a white vest. There was a fatal wound to his heart. Although there were other wounds on the body, the stabbing through the heart had finished him off. His hands had slash marks on them, as if he had tried to fight off the assailant. His trousers were down round his ankles. A condom hung from his penis.

Erlunder, together with the help of his two colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, immediately launches an investigation into the crime, but this is hindered on two fronts: first, no-one seems to know much about the victim despite the fact he had worked at the hotel for so long; and second, the manager wants the crime to be hushed up to save the hotel’s reputation and to “avoid arousing fear among the guests”.

This is all complicated by the time of year: it’s Christmas and the hotel is packed with rich foreigners “most of them tourists wearing traditional Icelandic sweaters, hiking boots and thick winter clothing”.

The investigation takes place over five days (each of the days is a section of the novel) during which Erlunder holes up in the hotel, taking a room in which the radiator does not work, in order to thoroughly immerse himself in finding out what happened. But this also allows him to avoid the pain of spending another Christmas at home alone with his wayward daughter, Eva Lind, a recovering drug addict. This lends the book an especially claustrophobic atmosphere, because the world outside barely intrudes on the hotel, its secretive staff, the guests — one of whom is under suspicion — and the piecing together of clues.

But the Santa murder is not the only narrative thread in this wholly gripping novel. In a second, interwoven storyline, Elinborg pursues a case in which a young boy is hospitalised after he was beaten up by school bullies. She firmly believes the father is the culprit and does all she can to prove her theory.

Meanwhile Erlunder slowly patches up his relationship with his daughter, revealing some of his inner demons — specifically the grief surrounding the death of his younger brother when Erlunder was 10 — for the first time. He also warms towards a female biotechnician helping out on the case and allows himself to go on a proper date, the first since he divorced his wife 25 years ago!

These additional elements do not, however, detract from the heart of the story. If anything, they enhance it, because it gives Indriðason the chance to really flesh out his characters, to explore their own troubles and heartaches, to make them more three-dimensional and real. To achieve this without sacrificing plot or narrative drive is quite an achievement.

It’s also quite an achievement to write a novel with three diverse storylines centred on one theme — the death of childhood — without knocking the reader over the head with it. And to neatly tie up everything at the end and to present a solution to the crime that had not once occurred to me (I usually guess these things long before the last page), also says a lot about the author’s talent as a crime writer.

On the whole Voices is a gripping read, intelligently written and plotted, that is emotional without resorting to sentiment or reader manipulation, and is satisfying without being formulaic or predictable. More please.

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2006

Books-of-the-yearA year’s worth of novels. How do I choose which ones make my Top 10 list?

I read so many interesting books this year. I didn’t have any specific reading goals other than to read more foreign novels (that is, books in translation) and more books from my homeland (Australia). I did well on both fronts, reading some 15 books in translation and 12 Australian novels.

Most of my reads were modern fiction (released in the past five years) with a handful of classics thrown in and a helluva lot of Irish stuff. All up I read 82 books, a fine increase on last year’s 30-odd total.

My favourite read for 2006 was, without question, the extremely profound Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I found the book so incredibly thoughtful, weighty and sagacious that I could not bring myself to review it.

My top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title) is as follows — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (German)

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee (American)

3. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (Irish)

4. Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers (English)

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (English)

6. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones (Australian)

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)

8. Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason (Icelandic)

9. Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Irish)

10. The Sea by John Banville (Irish)

And an extra one thrown in for good measure:

The Barracks by John McGahern (Irish)

What books did you fall in love with this year?

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Silence of the Grave’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 304 pages; 2006. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

Erlunder, the morose but endearing detective first introduced to English-language readers in Tainted Blood, is hard at work solving yet another Reykjavík murder mystery.

This time a body has been found in a shallow grave in an area that once housed British and American military barracks during the Second World War. It is believed that the body could have laid there for decades. But is it male or female, and was it simply a case of someone going missing in the snow or is there a more sinister reason for the body laying where it has been found?

This is an intense, sparsely written crime thriller composed of two intertwined narratives: in the present, Erlunder’s painstaking investigation interspersed with a painful personal situation in which his pregnant drug-addicted daughter lies in a coma; and in the past, a tragic story about a woman, subject to appalling domestic violence, whom may or may not be the victim in the grave.

The two stories are carefully constructed and inter cut with one another to build up a succession of clues which, for this reader anyway, were too glaringly obvious to create any real heart-hammering tension. I guessed the ending long before it was revealed.

That said, it’s a well written, entirely believable, if somewhat harrowing book, and it provides enough twists and turns not to be wholly predictable. And, as ever, Arnaldur Indriðason provides an intriguing glimpse of Iceland’s culture and history, which gives this book enough atmosphere to make up for any shortfall in my own expectations (I had, remember, fallen head over heels with Tainted Blood when I read it earlier this year and had expected to feel similarly infatuated with Silence of the Grave, alas it was not to be so...).

The author won the CWA Gold Dagger for this book in 2005.