Friday, March 29, 2013

Arctic Chill

It's hard to explain the charm of these Nordic thrillers set in the icy, dark winter, but I suspect it's the quality of the writing as much as anything else. At the end of this procedural by Arnaldur Indridason, his detective, Erlendur, is asking himself how people live in Iceland:
As so often before at this darkest time of the year he wondered how people had survived for hundreds of years in a country with such a harsh climate. The frost tightened its grip as evening fell, whipped up by the chill Arctic wind that blasted in from the sea and south over the desolate winter landscape....The wind howled and shrieked between the buildings and down the empty streets. The city lay lifeless, as if in the grip of a plague. People stayed inside their houses. They locked their doors, closed their windows and pulled the curtains, hoping against hope that the cold spell would soon be over.
Erlendur is, as this shows, the brooding sort. He broods about his wayward children, whom he neglected when they were growing up. He broods about his cases -- here the seemingly pointless death of a 10-year-old Thai immigrant child as well as a wife gone missing. He broods about his dying superior, whose hand he holds as he passes away and whose urn he buries shortly before the passage cited. Above all, he broods about his lost brother, whose hand slipped out of his during a blizzard and who was never found, dead or alive, though Erlendur survived by burrowing into a snowdrift. (The reader, of course, wonders if the brother some day will turn up alive.)

The plot, involving the child of a Thai mother and Icelandic father, dealt with racism and nationalism. The contrast between the sunny, optimistic disposition of the Thai woman and the dark, brooding Icelandic mentality intensified the racist undertones. And yet, the bigotry was of a relatively gentle sort, and the nationalism was not as heavy-handed as in Jo Nesbo's portrayal of Norway.

The names of the characters are wonderful. You feel like you've been transported to Valhalla or are sailing with a group of Vikings -- Ragnar, Sigridur, Elinborg, and so on. The only reasonably familiar name was that of the dying superior, Marion Briem, and one character commented how odd this name sounded. Indridason doesn't spare us the names of Reykjavik's streets or Iceland's mountains, but he is not nearly as punctilious as Stieg Larsson is with Stockholm.

The plot develops, quirky characters and potential suspects come and go, clues are tenaciously followed up and finally enable the detectives to unravel the mystery. Nothing can bring back Elias, the 10-year-old boy whose Thai name, Aran, meant forest, and who wrote in his exercise book, How many trees does it take to make a forest?

The brooding Erlendur is a complex character whose preoccupations are not as obvious as Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. Other characters also have some depth and in this book a whole new side of Sigurdur Olli, Erlendur's deputy, is developed. I liked Silence of the Grave and this confirms me as a fan of the series.

I picked up this book after two "fails." The cover and opening lines of The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri had beguiled me when I saw it on the table at Politics & Prose. It was the latest in his series featuring Inspector Montalbano, procedurals set in sunny Sicily. The Italian setting appealed to me and I knew there was a TV series based on the books. However, I just couldn't get into it. Montalbano was a scruffy old detective constantly firing up his cigarettes, arguing with his lady friend, and saying fairly inane things to his colleagues. Camilleri's descriptions of the environment had none of the detail or sense of place that Indridason brings to Iceland, let alone the sheer lyricism. The characters seemed shallow compared, in retrospect, to Erlendur, Sigurdur Olli and their cohorts. Maybe the earlier Montalbano books were better; maybe at some point I'll try reading them in Italian.

The other "fail" was The Coffee Trader by David Liss, which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I liked A Conspiracy of Paper the plot involving coffee trading in Amsterdam -- in the same Jewish community that Spinoza lived in (as portrayed so dramatically in the play "The New Jerusalem") -- had a lot of appeal for me. I was well into the book when I noticed I was bored -- stiff. The stilted language which worked in the earlier book to carry the reader back in time simply seemed stilted this time. The pace was languid and it was when yet another character noted for the dozenth time that Jews were not allowed to trade with Gentiles under threat of excommunication that I realized I wasn't enjoying this book. Maybe another time, but I don't think so.

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