Fed up of no snow? Try some Ice with a Slice (of family dysfunction).
As the nights draws in each year, weather predictions start to appear about the forthcoming winter. The next one is always going to be ‘the big one’ with projections of record-breaking snowfall, plummeting temperatures and traffic and school disruptions – hooray! I fall for it every single year. Childlike excitement is followed by bitter disappointment then fury as I realise I’ve been duped yet again by the confederation of moonboots and snow shovels, fear-mongering their way into our hearts and on-line shopping baskets.
This year has been no exception. Despite all the fighting talk of polar vortexs and arctic oscillations, West Wales has barely managed its halfhearted attempt at drizzle and mist, so to compensate for the aching deficiency of snow, I have sought succour in Icelandic crime.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s Silence of the Grave (2010, translated by Bernard Scudder) is the second in the award-winning series of Reykjavík Murder Mysteries. It picked up the Nordic Glass Key award, as did the first novel in the series, Jar City (2009) and has also been awarded the CWA Gold Dagger. I read and enjoyed Jar City last year, so was already acquainted with Detective Erlendur and his uneasy relationship with his drug-addicted daughter. Their own family dysfunctions are explored further in Silence of the Grave as Erlendur and his colleagues Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli investigate an historic crime, when a shallow grave containing human remains are unearthed during building work. The investigation delves into the past uncovering a tragic tale of terror, pain and domestic violence and its impact on the lives of the family members bound by a shared shameful secret.
Under mounting despair over his daughter’s health – she has lost her baby and lies critically ill in hospital for much of the novel – Erlendur reflects on the causes of the disastrous state of their relationship. Formative memories from his own childhood emerge which cast light on why relationships are difficult for him. This interweaving of themes from Erlendur’s life with those involved in the investigation make for a highly satisfying and gripping read.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Indriðason’s gritty, thought-provoking Icelandic thriller, I thought I was in for more of the same with Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals (2009, also translated by Bernard Scudder). I couldn’t have been more wrong. I did enjoy it, but those with a more delicate constitution beware – Sigurdardóttir does not believe ‘less is more’ when it comes to gore. If the brutal murder around which the story unfolds was not enough of a challenge to stomach (the body is discovered sans eyeballs, which we later find out were popped out by a teaspoon – sugar anyone?), the circumstances surrounding the death take us into a dark world of torture and black magic rituals which scared the freaking bejazzles out of me – but in a good way!
Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, who is a lawyer, is hired by a wealthy German family to investigate the murder of their son, in the belief that the police have detained the wrong man. She is presented with the case files by Matthew Reich, who has flown over to Reykjavik on behalf of the family to work with Thóra on the case. The investigation takes them to remote regions of northern Iceland, as they delve into dark Icelandic history, from many centuries past. Like Indriðason’s Erlendur, Thóra struggles with family life, sharing parental responsibilities with her ex partner, and juggling work with single-parenting, and this theme of family dysfunction is explored on multiple levels throughout the novel.
While Erlendur is withdrawn and contemplative, in Thóra, Sigurdardóttir has created a warm endearing character, whose razor-sharp intelligence is balanced nicely with a certain propensity for clumsiness which makes her both believable and endearing. This chiaroscuro, or balancing of extremes is not limited to how the characters are drawn, but is also used in the plot to great effect. Sigurdardóttir does not shy away from presenting the most grisly of scenes in forensic detail, but with flashes of dark humour, she skillfully alleviates the tension.
My desire to be immersed in a snowy landscape might remain unassuaged, (there was about as much snow in these novels as there is in Wales right now) but I’m not complaining, as both were highly satisfying psychological thrillers, which chilled me to the bone. Luckily, I’ve got the next couple in the series by each of these authors lined up, as well as the next in Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series which I’m itching to read. It would seem that my Icelandic Crime obsession is far from over yet.