by Arnaldur Indridason
Thomas Dunne Books, New York
Translated by Bernard Scudder
Arnaldur Indridason has given us another novel in the Reykjavik Thriller Series — perhaps the best one yet. It is the third volume in English and, according to information on the dust jacket, not the last. In this book, as in the previous two — Jar City and Silence of the Grave — Erlendur Sveinsson is the police detective in charge of the investigation. It is almost exclusively from Erlendur’s point of view that we see the story unfold. In Silence of the Grave, there are large portions of the story that are flashbacks and at times we followed Erlendur’s colleagues as they did their part, following various leads in the investigation. Jar City is also like this, although not as extensively. But in Voices, I can’t remember an instance when we are outside of Erlendur’s point of view.
As with the two previous English releases, Arnaldur gives us a view of the dark side of life in Iceland — Reykjavik, in particular. Again, as with the others, we witness the loneliness and seclusion that seems to be a prevalent trait of the Scandinavian culture. We are shown the fact that there is no place that is perfect — that even a small country like Iceland has its problem with those in the underground and with people living outside the mainstream of society.
A short introduction:
Voices takes place over a period of five days — the five days immediately before Christmas Day. A time when people should be happy and when crime takes a holiday, but crime doesn’t ever take a holiday.
The small, shabby room in the basement of an up-scale hotel is the scene of a murder. The doorman/maintenance man who also plays Santa for the children of the guests has been found with his pants down and multiple stab wounds. No one at the hotel has seen anything suspicious and curiously, no one admits to knowing anything about the victim, a man about 50 years old named Gudlaugur. A man who has worked at the hotel in the same position for some 20 years.
The novel has a host of interesting characters — in Voices, most of them are more stereotypical of the type found in mystery novels than the characters Arnaldur has given us in Silence of the Grave and Jar City. I don’t necessarily think this is bad. Writing a stereotype for minor characters helps the reader to more quickly get a handle on the traits of the minor character and allows the story to continue moving, keeping it from bogging down with more-or-less unimportant details.
There is the portly hotel manager who constantly mops sweat from his face and neck and doesn’t want word of the murder to spread among the guests.
There Osp, a hotel maid, who seems to be trapped in her job and can’t seem to get out.
The collector from England is particularly greasy, greedy and unkempt and is a prime suspect in the murder.
Of course, there is always the family of deceased. Santa’s older sister and aging father are very terse and upset that they have to go through questioning by the police (the victim is often referred to as Santa — which is a humorously unsettling) . The father has disowned his son, Gudlaugur, and hasn’t seen him for 30 years, even though they live in the same city. Erlendur considers this to be very odd and he can’t understand what might have happened that would cause this type of behavior.
Erlendur’s fellow investigators are also present and we find that life for them has progressed, even though Erlendur’s life doesn’t seem to change. Sigurdur Oli is a detective who copes with crime with cynical quips and humor. Elinborg approaches the cases she is on with passion and a vision that comes from a woman’s point of view. In some ways, she presents and more practical or common-sense approach to the case.
The author likes to emphasize the humanity of the police force, though. While most of the civilians seem to be indifferent or even callus toward the fate of the victim, Erlendur and his crew seem to be the ones who care the most. It doesn’t seem to be a case of just wanting to get the case solved so they can go home and have a nice quiet Christmas, either. They seem to really care about the tragedy.
With Arnaldur, the author, the past is always present. In Voices, the past rears its head in the investigation of the crime and the potential of a person who is seen as a nobody is revealed. It is also the past that haunts Erlendur: the loss of his brother when they were teenagers and the blame he puts on himself for that; the reason he feels lost all the time; the reason for his loneliness; the reason for his dismal relationship with his children.
If there is a reason Arnaldur is taking this path of dwelling on the past, that is, other than writing a mystery novel, it is to show us that openness and truth are the key to mending and changing relationships. When Erlendur is closes himself and is not communicative with his daughter, Eva Lind, she begins to come apart and returns to drugs as a crutch. But when he finally starts to talk to her — almost to late to save her — she acquiesces and softens toward him.
To a person who is not of Scandinavian heritage, this closed-self characteristic may be difficult to imagine. As a Norwegian, I can understand this silence. I think is stems from centuries of isolation, both from the outer world as well as from other people even though they may live in the same area or country. When winter sets in in the northern climates, there is dark and ice and snow. All this impedes travel and community. So it’s almost like a trait that gets burned into your DNA. In some ways it is comforting and safe because the less people know about you the less likely you are to be hurt. But it is difficult for outsiders to understand because they lack the experience and no one who has the experience will talk about it!
Voices has a more linear style of plot than the previous two novels. It is a bit easier to follow than Silence of the Grave and seems to have a more conventional storyline. That is not to say the story is a re-hash of other detective novels — it isn’t. The motive may be typical, but the characters and the history behind the characters are fresh.
If you like crime mysteries with a psychological slant to them, I think you’ll like the book. I especially like it because it doesn’t go into gory details of description while the crime is being committed. I also like it because of the setting — Iceland, which has always intrigued me –and I suspect that it gives us an insight into at least some of the people who live there. I m also curious to discover how Erlendur is going to become the father that both he an his daughter, Eva Lind, want him to be. How is he going to solve the mystery of what is the key that will pull her away from drugs and from ultimately killing herself through usingthem?
I cannot close this review without at least a mention of Bernard Scudder, the translator. While I do not read Icelandic, I can say that Mr. Scudder has done an excellent job making the book readable and enjoyable. It is not easy to translate from one language into another. There are always words and phrases that simply cannot be translated. His translations make reading a novel seem like it was originally written in English.