Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Catch the Cold

A crime writer who I am very excited to meet at Bouchercon in Baltimore next month, and whose work I cannot recommend highly enough, is Arnaldur Indridason. I first became aware of this gentle giant from Iceland back in 2005, when he won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award for his novel Silence of the Grave (an event that courted some controversy and led to the establishment of a separate International Dagger Award). Indridason attended the Dagger Awards ceremony that year, and to show the importance of his victory, Icelandic TV sent a film crew over to England to cover the event. Further, I was asked to supply photos for a Scandinavian crime-fiction magazine, as his victory proved that Henning Mankell was no flash in the pan when it came to continental Europeans capturing the coveted Daggers.

At the time, I was not familiar with Indridason’s work, so I didn’t bother to say hello to him. That’s a slight I intend to rectify in Baltimore.

Once having read Silence of the Grave, though, I realized what a significant impact this author could have on the crime-fiction genre, so I went on to read Jar City (published in the UK as Tainted Blood), which is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest police procedurals ever written. It still haunts me and its conclusion brought me to tears. The film version of that novel (which was titled Mýrin in Iceland) opened in London two weeks ago and I am very pleased to report that I sat in my seat at the cinema, captivated, and again the ending brought moisture to my eyes.

It seems I am not alone in my wonder at this remarkable film. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott has remarked:
“Jar City,” though, turns out to be intricate and pointed, conjuring a haunting, satisfying puzzle out of violence and chaos. The murder, of an old man named Holberg, opens up a nest of older crimes and brooding secrets. [Reykjavik Detective Inspector] Erlendur [Sveinsson] finds himself investigating a possible rape from 30 years before and unraveling a tangled history of police corruption and petty brutality. What it all has to do with Holberg is no more clear to the audience than it is to the detective. But Erlendur’s combination of bluntness and analytical acumen informs Mr. Kormákur’s storytelling technique, making “Jar City” an unusually forceful and thought-provoking thriller.

The main enigma, from the audience’s point of view, involves the connection between Holberg’s killing and the death, from a rare genetic disease, of a girl in a Reykjavik hospital. In resolving this mystery the film explores the intimate, slightly sinister relations among citizens of a homogeneous, isolated nation. Police and criminals, strangers and enemies all address one another by their first names and seem to swing abruptly from candor to hostility and suspicion.
After seeing this movie last weekend, I cracked the spine of Indridason’s fifth translated work, Arctic Chill. I was sad to hear about the death earlier this year of Indridason’s original translator, poet Bernard Scudder, which delayed publication of this wonderful and timely new novel. As Scudder had not completed the translation at the time of his passing, Random House’s Harvill-Secker division commissioned Victoria Cribb to complete the translation. Last week, Random House UK sent me a proof copy of Arctic Chill, along with this synopsis of its story:
On an icy January day the Reykjavik police are called to a block of flats where a body has been found in the garden: a young, dark-skinned boy, frozen to the ground in a pool of his own blood. The discovery of a stab wound in his stomach extinguishes any hope that this was a tragic accident.

Erlendur and his team embark on their investigation with little to go on but the news that the boy’s Thai half-brother is missing. Is he implicated, or simply afraid for his own life? The investigation soon unearths tensions simmering beneath the surface of Iceland’s outwardly liberal, multicultural society. A teacher at the boy’s school makes no secret of his anti-immigration stance; incidents are reported between Icelandic pupils and the disaffected children of incomers; and, to confuse matters further, a suspected paedophile has been spotted in the area. Meanwhile, the boy’s murder forces Erlendur to confront the tragedy in his own past.

Soon, facts are emerging from the snow-filled darkness that are more chilling even than the Arctic night.
I’ve reviewed two of Indridason’s novels--Voices and The Draining Lake--for January Magazine in the past. The latest edition of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine features Indridason on its cover, with a story inside about Scandinavian crime writers. And this last weekend, the London Times published an interview with Indridason, put together by journalist Doug Johnstone, who wrote, in part:
The Erlendur novels are certainly cinematic, but there is also a sparseness and a deadly dry sense of humour that make them distinctly Icelandic, both traits found in the most famous Icelandic literature of all. “I am heavily influenced by the Icelandic sagas,” [Indridaso] admits. “The sagas are huge stories of families and events, murder and mayhem, and they were written on rare cowskin so they had to be very concise. They don’t use two words when one will do, and I take my cue from that. If you describe things, keep it simple, say what you need to say and go on with the story, never stop the story.”

This storytelling ethic is one of the reasons for Indridason’s success, and his novels are certainly compulsively readable. They also cast insight into the social and political upheaval in Iceland over the past couple of generations; a society trying to balance a deep love of its heritage with huge booms in technology, wealth and industry, trying to reconcile a love of the past with a vision for the future.

“Iceland is a very exciting place to set a crime novel,” Indridason says. “In the past 20 years it has opened up to all kinds of business and tourism and we have our own history to deal with. We’ve changed from being a very poor peasant society to a very rich modern society. Many people were left behind and aren’t at all happy with the new situation.”

Indridason tackles a lot of this through the relationship between Erlendur and his younger and more forward-thinking sidekick Sigurdur Óli. It’s an archetypal central relationship for crime fiction, but Indridason imbues it with unusual subtlety.
It is the melancholic character of Erlendur that makes these novels so compelling. Author Indridason talked with The Guardian a couple of years ago about the background he’s given his detective inspector:
“My father [author Indriði G. Þorsteinsson] was of the generation that moved to the city and he wrote about characters who had, too. Erlendur comes from the country and never felt at home in the city. His domestic life is either difficult or just bleak. A good-looking man in his 30s with a happy home life and good at his job is a happy ending of a story, not a beginning. The study of family life lets you raise all kinds of questions.” Indridason lives in Reykjavik with his wife and three children and says there are few other things so important in our lives, “and few that have so many possibilities in drama and humour. How can Erlendur deal with other people’s family tragedies--usually lost people in every sense--but can’t help himself? What makes him who he is? And I’m running out of time. They say 10 books is the limit for a character. After that you repeat yourself, learn nothing new and say nothing new. I’m not at 10 yet, but it’s getting closer. I really don’t know if I’ll get there.”
Even in these increasingly worrisome economic times, novels about Indriadson’s Reykjavik detectives remain good investments. Euro for euro, dollar for dollar, his work sits right at the top of this genre. If you haven’t yet explored his chilly world, there’s still time to do so before meeting him in Baltimore.


Anonymous said...

I'm really looking forward to that Saturday's panel, also including another of my faves, Charles Benoit


Naomi Hirahara said...

So jealous that you got to see the movie. I must have missed when it was screened in the States. (When will it be available on DVD?!) I'm also a huge fan of Indriadson's series.

Ali Karim said...

Naomi - Jar City is beinging screened Friday night at B'con-

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