The Draining Lake – A Book Review

  • by Arnaldur Indridason
  • Thomas Dunn Books, NY
  • ISBN: 9870312358730
  • Translated by Bernard Scudder

With The Draining Lake we have the latest offering in the series of Icelandic mysteries by Arnaldur Indridason and I am almost tempted to say that it is my favorite. The problem is that each book’s subject matter is different enough so that each book has the potential to be a favorite! But Cold War era spying and suspense is always a weakness for me.

As in the other novels in the series, the main plot of the book centers around a death that happened decades earlier. This is a cold case police procedural novel and just when it appears that every lead has been followed to a dead end, something presents itself which adds impetus for continuing the investigation.

One predominant fact of the series is that the main framework of the novel is a vehicle for revealing the lives of the main characters in the novels — not only those characters that are common to the series, but those that are specific to the individual book.  It makes the people real when we discover they have lives and friends and desires and feelings outside the main plot framework.

The Main Framework

The body in The Draining Lake is only a skeleton found in the mud of a lake that has been draining due to recent earthquake activity. The skull has a large hole near the temple and a piece of Russian radio equipment has been tied to it for weight. Thus begins the investigation.

Arnaldur delves into the history of the Cold War and the spying activities that occurred in Iceland during that period of history. There is a passage in which a character compares socialism and communism to capitalism. It is especially chilling to “hear” the narrator of that particular passage express his vitriolic views of capitalism while extolling the virtues of socialism.

While I was not a resident of any Eastern Bloc Country, I have heard and read descriptions of life under the thumb of socialism and the author’s depiction of life and the suppression under which the people had to live lends realism to the plot. I still see, in my mind’s eye, the photos of the burned-out/bombed-out buildings in East Berlin that were never repaired.  I see images of the food lines in Moscow of people waiting for a store to open because they heard there was a shipment of bread or meat — knowing all along that their chances of getting any was slim, and the photos of the interiors of the grocery stores with the shelves absolutely empty of goods. I recall hearing of the fear that the people lived under, knowing they could not say anything against the state because a slightest word might get them arrested and sent away, never to be seen again. I recall news reports of people who tried to escape to the West across the no-man’s-land, over the barbed wire fences or through tunnels — only to be killed in the process.

This book gives us a good sense of what the world was like in the Communist Bloc at that time. It gives us a good sense of the panic that one feels when a loved one goes missing at the hands of a cruel regime — never to be seen again It also shows that people who were under that iron fist didn’t always agree with it and wanted freedom to the degree that they were willing to give their own life for others.

Arnaldur uses flashbacks to give us history of both the times and the people involved. Through them he builds the case from the point of view of the character that committed the murder, giving us information that is more complete that what the other characters (e.g., the investigation team) in the novel will get.

The Sub-Plots

As usual, there are several sub-plots going on at the same time. The main is of course with the head detective, Erlander. His daughter, Eva Lind, is still the main focus of his private life and is still a slave to drugs. It is a sad, but true fact of illicit drug use. She is a living reminder, a living ghost, if you will, of the brother he lost so many years ago, that keeps haunting him. He blames himself for his brother’s death, but here is his own daughter killing herself as he watches and he doesn’t know what to do. We get the feeling that if he doesn’t do something soon, Eva will be dead and he will have one more death to feel guilty about.

The Draining Lake, however, brings to us Erlendur’s son, whom we have never met before. Sindri Snaer has his feet on firmer ground than his sister and he isn’t demanding of Erlendur, but it is from him that we (and Erlendur) learn how important Erlendur actually was to his daughter when she was a child.

Erlendur is seeing a married woman which complicates his life even more. All-in-all, he seems to be pretty pathetic person who has trouble managing his personal life and the ghosts of his brother of whose death he insists upon claiming all the blame.

Related to the main plot is a story told in flashbacks which informs us of life in the Eastern Bloc countries and reveals the whys and wherefores of the skeleton found in the lake. This is a complete story all in itself. Arnaldur does a wonderful job of giving out the story in bits and pieces, extending the solution of the crime until the last few pages. The author uses the flashback to show us all sides of the story — sometimes the murderer deserves a little sympathy.

Read It!

You won’t be disappointed with spending time with this book or with any of the others that Arnaldur Indridason has written. If you looking for a new author in a new setting — this is the series for you.

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