Silence of the Grave

  • by Arnaldur Indridason
  • Thomas Dunn Books, New York
  • ISBN: 9780312340711
  • 278 pp. / $22.95
  • Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder.

It all begins innocently enough: a visitor to a birthday party for an eight year old boy in a new subdivision of Reykjavik discovers that the birthday boys infant sister is using a piece of a human rib as a teething object. And it builds from there.

Author Arnaldur Indridason (pronounced: in-dridth-a-son) has once again woven a complex novel out of several story lines.  His first book (that has been published in the U.S.),  Jar City (also published under the title Tainted Blood ), caught my attention with the very first page and succeeded in keeping my attention to the end of that book without any trouble.  Silence of the Grave, on the other hand, was a little slow to start out, but it is more complex and more disturbing than Jar City, and after the first few pages it captivates the reader all the way to the end.

In Silence of the Grave, we once again follow Erlandur and his fellow inspectors, Elinborg and Sigradur Oli, as they unravel the mystery of a shallow grave. Through flashbacks, we do know a bit more than the inspectors do about the case, but it is only a little more and the killer isn’t discovered until the the last few pages of the book. Is the revelation of the killer’s identity a surprise to us?  Not really, once we see the situation, but we are not clued-in to the killer’s identity until the very end.

One of the more difficult tricks in novel writing is using flashbacks in such a way that they don’t jerk us around between one time or another. In Silence, we are transported back-and-forth in time from 10 to 60 years earlier than the present. While the “transport” in this novel is not seamless, it is not at all painful. It is, in fact, necessary.

Arnaldur has crafted the novel so the eras coincide with each other and everything is in sync. We never have to stop and wonder who we are reading about and at what time in history. We are always able to make sense out of it.

Let me relate the novel’s story to you.

Silence of the Grave is a police procedural novel which revolves around the discovery of a grave at a residential construction site. The experts that are called in all agree that the grave is around 70 years old — so the question is: Who is buried there and how did he come to be buried there? After the initial discovery and everyone else has left the scene, Erlendur is walking on top of the grave and looking at the countryside. He tries to kick at a pebble that is sticking up, and when it doesn’t move, he bends to pull at it.  To his horror, he realizes that it is the bone of a finger of the left hand of the person buried there.  He kneels and begins digging until the rest of the hand is uncovered.  Whoever was buried there was alive when he was covered with dirt!

It is eventually discovered that there was once a chalet at that location, but it had been torn down. The name of the owner of the chalet is discovered and along with that they find that he has since died. He is the first suspect because he was once engaged to be married and when his fiance broke-off the engagement, she was never seen again.  Rumor had it she threw herself into the sea.  It can’t be proven that she actually did.  Is she buried in the grave?

The site was also the place that was occupied by first British and then American soldiers during the War. The national historical archives are searched for leads in that direction — perhaps one of the soldiers was killed and buried there.

It also turns out that the chalet was a rental.  Who rented it?  What was their situation and could they have any knowledge of the person in the grave?

These are the lines down which Arnaldur leads us.  The problem is that the burial happened so many years ago and few records were kept or retained.  Short of finding people who lived near the chalet and actually witnessed something, they are stumped.  There are two or three people still living — one dies after speaking about a crooked woman in green — another who is quite helpful has a diary that he kept when he was stationed in Iceland during the war and the third doesn’t show up until near the end of the novel .

We follow the inspectors as they follow clues and hints.  Woven in and out of this action are the flashbacks that I talked about earlier.  These flashbacks actually take place during the War and are essential to our understanding of the story behind the grave.

When the first flashback of the series is read, it is not understood to be a flashback. The situation seems to be another place and not another time.  It is not until the second or third time the flashback is presented to us that we realize that we understand it to be  to be an action in the past. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the flashback.  We realize though the flashback that domestic violence hasn’t changed at all — even though we see ourselves as being more civilized than our predecessors were. It confirms that there really is no improvement in the prevention or prosecution of this crime.

The flashback brings us into the life of a family dominated by an abusive and violent husband who viciously thrashes his wife. He often threatens that he will kill the children if she doesn’t straighten up or if she tries to run away. The threat is especially focused on his step-daughter who is crippled because of a childhood illness.

This is the framework of the novel upon which other story lines are hung. There are a couple of secondary story lines dealing with the other inspectors and their lives, but there is another important story line that parallels the main one and is important in that it makes us to look at ourselves and our lives.

In Jar City we met Erlendur’s daughter, Eva Lind. At twenty years old, Eva has experienced more of the seedier side of life than most of us can imagine and very nearly none of the good side. She is angry with her father but we get the impression that she is drawn to him, looking for something. In my review of Jar City I said that both want to have the relationship that fathers have with their daughters and daughters have with their fathers. In Silence of the Grave, this is confirmed.

With the beginning of Silence, we find that Eva has once again disappeared from Erlendur’s life. He receives a phone call from her and asks for help, but doesn’t say where she is, and then the phone goes dead. This leads Erlendur to make a frantic search for her around the city, showing us people who are hard and callous, bringing us into flop-houses and places where we wouldn’t let our dog live. He finally finds her and brings her to the hospital. She loses her baby and is in a coma and remains in a coma for the rest of the book.

The doctor tells Erlendur that she can hear him and that it might do some good to talk to her. He is silent on his next visits to her bedside, unable to know what to say. He finally decides he can at least talk to her about the case he is working on, but he soon runs out of the mundane things and begins to go deeper into his thoughts. He talks with her about how he came to leave her mother and why he had had no contact with them. He talks about how he feels is lost and he can’t find his way back — presumably to his children and to a full life.

Eventually, he reveals his boyhood. He tells her how the family came to move to Reykjavik and how he felt when the family moved there. Then he talks about his greatest hurt, his brother who was lost when both of them were caught in a blizzard and Erlendur was the one who survived. They had been holding hands to keep from losing each other and he remembers the instant their hands slipped apart and he never saw his brother again. His brother was never found and Erlendur blames himself for his brother’s death.

Throughout the investigation, he is always preoccupied with Eva Lind. The scenes and discussions of the case trigger thoughts of Eva and flashbacks to his marriage. He analyses his role as a father and toys with the idea that he wasn’t a good husband and father, finally struggles with the fact that he was not.

My Take:

Silence of the Grave is not a book for the squeamish. It deals with acute domestic violence in a very straight-forward manner. There are descriptions of the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse that some women endure at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. These are not enjoyable to read and in fact made me cringe. The descriptions are not prolonged, but the few words used are well-chosen and made an impact on the reader.

Arnaldur never states or in any way infers that the woman is at fault. He always shows her as a true victim — innocent of provoking a battering and ultimately not understanding why it happened.

I think that the author must have done an appreciable amount of research about abusive husbands — the way they think; the things they say to thier wives; how they act when they go to town and are around people not in the immediate family; how they act when they are on the edge of anger toward their wives.

He certainly researched the woman’s point of view of abuse — how it affects her physically, emotionally, and mentally; how it is all so confusing to her — how she is battered even when she does everything perfectly; how she is afraid every minute of every day; how it is impossible to run away.

Silence of the Grave is an excellent book. It is well-written and keeps the reader’s interest throughout. The topic is timeless and needs to be addressed until this crime is eradicated. The translator, Bernard Scudder, needs to be commended as well as the author for his work. He did a wonderful job of translating into English.

I highly recommend this book. I think once you start reading it, you won’t be able to put it down until you read the last page and I think that page will make you smile.

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