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!

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.

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.

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

‘Tainted Blood’ by Arnaldur Indriðason


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224  pages; 2005. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

I could probably review this book in one word — WOW! — but that wouldn’t be fair, would it? I could also review it in three words — I LOVED IT! — but that isn’t fair either.

So let me say this: Arnaldur Indriðason’s Tainted Blood is a taut, well-executed police procedural, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. It grips from the first page, each sentence beautifully written, propelling the story forward without wasting one word.

The writing is sparse and elegant, but very visual. You can smell, feel, hear and SEE everything that Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson goes through as he investigates the murder of an old man with a sordid past.

The plot is calculating and well constructed, if a little predictable towards the end. But the beauty of this novel is the layering effect, of stories within stories, sad and melancholy as they may be. The parallel tale of Erlendur’s complicated relationship with his drug-addicted older daughter only serves to add a rich depth to an already riveting crime thriller.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, turning the pages quicker than my eyes could hungrily devour them. I suspect it would make an excellent film, and I’d be surprised if the film rights haven’t already been snapped up.

Tainted Blood won the Nordic Crime Novel Award and received much international acclaim — and with good reason. Now I am eager to read the follow up to this novel, Silence of the Grave, which has reaped similar plaudits.

So, if you’re looking for a clever crime thriller set in an atmospheric location with interesting and complicated characters, a little bit of science, a lot of detective work and some unexpected twists and turns thrown in, then this book is hard to beat.

There. That was better than a one-word review, wasn’t it?