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…

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Rebecca Frayn, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Deceptions’ by Rebecca Frayn


Fiction – paperback; Simon and Schuster; 240 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I suspect Rebecca Frayn may have personal reasons for not wanting to include her father’s name — the writer Michael Frayn — in any of the publicity material accompanying her new novel, but it was this very parentage that actually made me interested in reading Deceptions if for no other reason than to see if the writerly genes had been passed on. I am pleased to report that they have.

Deceptions, which is Frayn’s second novel, is literary fiction, but it could equally fall into the thriller camp because the narrative is so fast-paced and so well plotted it is next to impossible to put the book down. I read it in two sittings.

The nub of the story is one we have all heard before — the disappearance of a child — but Frayn tells it in a new and fresh way. She does this by making the almost step-father the narrator, which lends the story a rather detached, almost cold, tone. And mid-way through — and this is not a plot spoiler — there is news of the child’s fate, so that you are not left in limbo, wondering what has happened.

Deceptions opens on the day that 12-year-old Dan fails to return from his comprehensive school in West London. During the course of the police investigation, it seems more and more likely that he merely ran away. There are insinuations that Dan’s position as the sole male in the household, usurped by the impending wedding of his widowed mother, Annie, to Julian, an art consultant and narrator of the story, may have given him reason to flee. This theory is further supported by Dan’s recent bad behaviour at school where he has fallen in with a rather hostile and dubious bunch of under-achieving students.

But it is not so much the potential cause of Dan’s disappearance that Frayn trains her eye: it is the outfall of his loss on his mother and, in turn, her relationship with Julian. I imagine Annie’s behaviour is fairly natural of any mother who loses a child in strange circumstances: she never loses hope of a possible return. Julian, on the other hand, wants her to move on, and to come to terms with the notion that Dan may, in fact, be dead.

Over the past three years I had formed my own theory about Dan’s disappearance. […] At first I tried various circumspect means of broaching the subject, yet she was resolute in refusing to pick up on any of my cautious overtures. Each time I had to overcome a deep aversion to actually articulating the subject we had for so long tiptoed around. But eventually I took myself in hand by preparing a little speech, which I delivered one evening before my courage could fail me.

The outfall of this speech, which is almost as devastating as Dan’s disappearance, is long-lasting, because once the words have been said, they cannot be unsaid. For Julian, this is a recurring issue: how does he say the things that need to be said without being diminished in the eyes of Annie, whom he loves so much?

The over-riding theme, however, is the small deceptions we tell ourselves in order not to address the underlying cause of our sorrow or failings, because to do so would change things in irreversible ways. We see this in Annie’s love for, and belief in, her son, as she refuses to acknowledge that maybe she doesn’t know him as well as she thought.

There’s a real humanity about this story — and a truth about the ways in which we cope, not only with tragedy, but with day-to-day issues that challenge our perception of the world and our relationships with the people closest to us. And it feels incredibly authentic, perhaps because it was inspired by a true life case, the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay in 1994, whose fate remains unknown.