THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Reykjavik Murder Mysteries by Arnaldur Indridason
Before I fell in love with Arnaldur’s books, I had thought that Iceland is just a big rock somewhere in the North Atlantic. I knew about Bjork, geysers, and the capital Reykjavik, but that was pretty much it.
I didn’t know, for example, that Icelandic winters are much milder than ours here on the prairies. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Reykjavik, the northernmost capital of a sovereign state, lies at 64° 08’ - Yellowknife at 62° 28’ and Whitehorse at 60° 43, for example, are more southern then the Iceland capital - but the average January temperature is + 0.2° Celsius. In Iceland, in midwinter, during the Polar Nights, there is a period without sunlight. In midsummer, daylight takes over and there is no darkness during June and July, creating the opposite phenomenon called the Midnight Sun. (See the photo of Reykjavik in July, at 11:00 P. M.)
I’ve learned that the Icelandic phonebooks list the users alphabetically by first names because Icelandic family names are patronymic, (or sometimes, matronymic). Different from the most of Western family name systems, patronymic names reflect the immediate father - or mother - of the child, rather than the family ancestry. Through the series, the main character, Detective Inspector Erlandur, is known by his first name; his last name – Sveinsson – tells us only that his father’s first name was Svein. Icelanders formally address others by their first names.
These books have also taught me that in December 1998 the Parliament of Iceland passed a bill that allowed the state to create a centralized database of all Icelanders’ genealogical, genetic and personal medical information.
There are, of course, other reasons why I’ve liked Arnaldur’s novels, the main being Detective Inspector Erlendur himself: not unlike Kurt Wallander or John Rebus, and in spite of many years of exposure to the most hideous crimes, he is able to keep his humanity intact. He seeks solitude, happiest in his own company. There is a broken marriage and very complex relationship with his grown-up children: a drug addict daughter and recovering addict son. He is prone to self-reflection, melancholy and depression. Lost in a blizzard together with his younger brother when they were children, he, unlike his brother, survived. The accident, however, had marked him for the rest of his life with overwhelming guilt and lifelong obsession with missing persons. Not surprisingly, mysteriously vanished people have become a leitmotif, a recurring theme, of the whole Erlendur series.
Similar to Henning Mankell's and Stieg Larsson's work, Arlandur’s novels have a strong social component: through his main character, he boldly addresses some serious issues such as racism, child abuse, corruption, disintegration and moral collapse of the society.
Although the series starts with Sons of Dust and Silent Kill, these two novels have not been translated for the North American market. The English translations started with Jar City (2005). Asked about it in the e-mail interview with mcnallyrobinson.com in July 2008, Arnaldur said that Jar City was his breakthrough book, and therefore, a good start. “It gets you into the atmosphere of the books and the character, the weather, the streets of Reykjavik, and possibly you want to know more about this guy Erlendur, the sad policeman, after reading it…”
The reading sequence, available in English, continues with Silence of the Grave (2005). In his review, Bill Ott from Booklist wrote that in Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur “returns to the theme of buried pain, with the action centering on the discovery of a human bone at a construction site near Reykjavik. The trail, which leads back to World War II, has gone very cold indeed. Erlendur has a very personal reason for his abiding interest in missing persons, and that - combined with the fact that his drug-abusing daughter is in the hospital in a coma - opens the door for plenty of back story regarding the detective's troubled history. With a narrative that jumps between the 1940s and the present, the novel generates a sort of emotional claustrophobia, its characters trapped in a world where the pain of the past, though often submerged, is always with us…”
Silence of the Grave was followed by Voices (2006), The Draining Lake (2007), Arctic Chill (2008), and Hypothermia (2009).
About the author: Arnaldur Indriðason was born in 1961 in Reykjavik. He has a degree in history from the University of Iceland. He worked as a journalist and movie critic. His books have been published in 26 countries and translated into more than a dozen languages. Among other awards, he won the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2005 for Silence of the Grave.
Illustration: Reykjavik in July, around 11:00 P. M. Courtesy of Flickr.com