Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Indoors and out in Arnaldur's Iceland

I've been reading more of Arnaldur Indriðason, one book that I think is his weakest, and another that seems likely to be up there with his best.

The weaker book is Voices, and I believe its weakness stems from its reliance to a greater extent than Arnaldur's other books on melodrama. More than usual as well for Arnaldur, the action, the pivotal events especially, happens indoors.

The site is a Reykjavik hotel where an employee has been found murdered and where Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson stays for the course of the investigation because he does not feel like going home. The employee is an ex-hotel doorman and holiday Santa and a former child star with a number of financial, personal and family entanglements.

In The Draining Lake, Silence of the Grave and Arctic Chill, bodies are found outdoors. In the first two, especially, this reinforces the intimate connection with Iceland and its soil that is the most distinctive feature of the Erlendur books. In Voices, everything happens inside, and the melodrama has to carry the book. This melodrama is sharper, sadder and more affecting than most, but I miss the connection with the land.

The connection promises to be present in Silence of the Grave, second of the five Erlendur novels and winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 2005. As in the superb Draining Lake, Iceland's soil yields up the body that sets the story in motion. Here, its discovery is odder and funnier:
"He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."
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At least two of Arnaldur's characters share their names with characters from the Icelandic classic Njal's Saga. Arnaldur has said the sagas influenced his prose style. Perhaps they influenced him in other ways as well.

On the other hand, Iceland is a small, historically homogeneous society. Perhaps it's no surprise that traditional names are especially prevalent. The names Arnaldur gives his characters may be no more significant than those of fictional characters such as Hieronymus Bosch or Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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25 Comments:

Blogger R. T. said...

Naming people in traditional Icelandic society is a patronymic exericse. If a father, with first Arnaldur has a son, the son's last name is Arnaldursson; a daughter is the family has the last name Arnaldursdottir. Thus, first names--especially those of fathers--become more important. Also, people tend to refer to others by first names because (I think) of the confusion that can result in using last names (i.e., sons and daughters in a family have different last names, and their last names are different from their parents' last names). Moreover, Icelanders are, as your suggested, fond of their sagas and heritage, which suggests plenty of opportunities for names borrowed from the past. I don't know if the foregoing in any way illuminates your excellent posting, but I nevertheless offer it as a tidbit from Iceland (where I lived for about a year and a half several decades ago). As for Arnaldur's novels, I don't know that I would choose _Voices_ as the "weakest," but I've not given much thought to ranking the novels since I have enjoyed every one of them.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I knew about that practice in Icelandic naming, but it had not occurred to me that it could be a factor in the persistence of traditional names. I am told by an Icelander that Icelandic phone directories are organized alphabetically by first names, which must be confusing for visitors.

I did notice that one review said Voices faltered because the reader might guess Gudlaugur's secret too easily. Such a criticism is beside the point. I think the weakness, if any, is closer to what I highlighted. I think Arnaldur experimented in this book, taking the family drama that is often part of his stories and building an entire book around it. Even the motif of the action staged virtually entirely within a hotel has a whiff of old-time melodrama about it.

I thought of ranking the novels only because Arnaldur had set such a high standard with me in the three books I'd read previously and in the one I'm reading now. Voices does include some customarily pungent observations about Iceland and Icelanders that I may discuss in a future post.

I believe you'd mentioned having lived there. Military service, if I recall correctly.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

You recall correctly: 1980-1981, courtesy of U.S. Navy.

I did an email exchange interview with Arnaldur several years ago for Mystery News (which is, sad to say, ending publication). He was most gracious and forthcoming, though I did detect a bit of understandable frostiness about NATO's former presence in Keflavik.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I mingled at a party for Arnaldur at last year's Bouchercon. The only frostiness was in the gin and tonics.

I'd have guessed from The Draining Lake that he might be a bit chilly about Cold War presence in Iceland.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Like you, I loved that bone (plus where it was found) and used it in my review of Silence of the Grave.

In my opinion one of the differences between these two novels is the characters. I found the main characters of Silence of the Grave interesting and appealing whereas I remember´Santa´ as a bit pathetic and I was less interesting in knowing what had happened to him.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, "Santa" was made to seem especially pathetic by the far greater emphasis on him than on the victims in some of Arnaldur's other books. There is equal or greater emphasis on the victim in, say, Arctic Chill, but it's a dynamic emphasis: the victim's interaction with his family, friends and school staff, and the interaction among those various groups.

In Voices, I think Arnaldur deliberately stripped out the interaction and focused on two solitary characters. The other character is Erlendur. We know about Erlendur's background and his unsociable habits from the other novels, but here the focus on them is far greater. I respect Arnaldur for choosing to turn his back in interaction, the stuff of which most novels are made, and focus almost exclusively in the inner life of these two characters. I just don't think it works as well as his other novels. It would be interesting to see if he tries this strategy in the future.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

Very interesting discussion! I'm just teaching Crime and Punishment again, so patronymics are the topic of the day.

But I'm so immature that when you mentioned Njal's saga, I immediately thought of Monty Python's spoof called Njorl's Saga and couldn't stop giggling.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had never heard of that Monty Python sketch. Unless the Pythons handle the subject with disrespect and misunderstanding, I am willing to believe that their spoof is an affectionate tribute.

At least Russians use a family name in addition to the patronymic. Icelanders don't even have that to guide bewildered visitors who need to look up a phone number in Reykjavik.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Julia Buckley said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kdp9M9tJx1I

It's still kind of funny. :)

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, it is, and, as I suspected, an affectionate jab at the sagas' elaborate genealogies. Thanks.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Susan said...

I've read all of his books except the newest (just out in hardcover here) and Voices, which my friend borrowed on me! I read The Draining Lake earlier this summer. I very much enjoy just about everything in this series. The dark winters, the melancholy, Erlendur's dogged determination to get to the truth, his rocky relationship with his children - wasn't it good to finally meet his son in The Draining Lake? And his co-workers, who are hilarious opposites in nature to him. There is a haunting atmosphere to this series - not scary, more mournful, that I haven't quite figured out if it is Nordic in nature, because Mankell has something similar in the Wallander series. I didn't make the connection to the soil and outside in most of Erlendur's books, so that's interesting. YOu might have something there, especially as Erlendur is haunted by people lost/dying in the outdoors because of his brother.

I just found your site, and I've added you to my blogroll. I'm really like how you concentrate on mystery and talk about everything mystery! I'll be back often!

September 29, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Susan points out one of the most important factors in Erlendur's personal and professional zeal: the death of his brother. Superbly noted!

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words, and welcome.

I've read the books out of order, so I've known Erlendur's son for a while now. Plenty of fictional detectives are melancholy, and some are haunted. Arnaldur carries this off better than just about anyone else because he roots his protagonist so firmly in its setting. Even the great, haunting tragedy of Erlendur's brother in extricably tied to Iceland -- its weather, in this case. All this helps make the character's isolation more than just standard-issue lonely-detective window dressing. Arnaldur tells detective stories and also thinks deeply about his country, more so than any other crime writer I can think of.

And, don't forget that Erlendur means foreign in Icelandic!

I look forward to the sixth Erlendur novel, which has the marvelous title Hypothermia.

September 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., the death of Erlendur's brother is evidence that family drama (and melodrama) are vital parts of Arnaldur's world. I don't mean to suggest otherwise. I just think this book skews the emphasis a bit too heavily.

September 29, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, it was through DBB that I felt compelled to read Arnaldur (had read of him but had been avoiding him, not really wanting to read Scandinavian crime fiction—too close to home and heritage) but I went hunting for this older post that I vaguely remembered just to say I had the melancholy pleasure of reading this novel over the Christmas holidays. Maybe it was partly the place I read it—the bit-Iceland-like Northern California coast—but I enjoyed it very much. In addition to your other reservations do you perhaps mean “weak” as in less hardboiled than the others you’ve read? Yes, it was more sentimental than the first 2, but that can happen at Christmas. There was even a glimmer of hope for Erlendur’s receiving some peace-of-mind, perhaps even some happiness late in life. Maybe it’s a girly thing, but I don’t always mind when an author gives the embittered, loner detective the prospect for some of that. And I can now add Arnaldur to a very short list of crime fiction authors (Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and William McIlvanney) who have left me in tears at the end.

On a lighter note, I laughed at loud at Elinborg’s fretting over having enough time to bake her various Christmas cookies (I could identify with that!) and her tending the Christmas Eve pork “just as carefully as if it had been the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.”

I also had a strange vision of a corollary between Arnaldur’s 3 main detective characters and their counterparts in Camilleri. Arnaldur as Montalbano (yes, I know that’s stretching it); Sigurdur Óli as Mimi Augello, and Elinborg as Fazio.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd never have imagined that the Northern California coast was anything like Iceland. I shall keep my eyes open when I'm in San Francisco for Bouchercon later this year. I'll add, as I've done before, that, though his protagonist is of solitary inclinations, Arnaldur's work is not what people have in mind when they roll their eyes and think Scandinavian mysteries.

By "weakest," I meant principally that, by moving the action in Voices indoors, Arnaldur has lost some of that intimate connection with the land that his other books had. I likely would feel differently about Voices had I read it before the others.

I, too, have choked up at the ends of Arnaldur's novels. In the matters of emotion and the hope for peace, I'd be interesting in hearing what you think of Arnaldur's newest, Hypothermia, should you read it.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger R. T. said...

May I offer a comment here?
I finished reading HYPOTHERMIA last week, and feel it may be Indridason's best novel; the connections of past (Erlendur's) and present (crime under consideration) seamlessly splice the theme and the plot. Poignant and powerful, HYPOTHERMIA puts together all of Indridason's powers.
As for the comparison between Northern California and Iceland, I must disagree. I've lived in both places, and I cannot think of a single physical, climatic, cultural, or social basis on which to make such a comparison.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hypothermia may be Arnaldur's best. But I've also said the same about Arctic Chill, Silence of the Grave and The Draining Lake.

Hypothermia does some interesting things with Erlendur's past, which is why we all should read and then discuss it.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, it was the really far Northern California coast, Elk, to be precise. It's a bit remote (if there is such a thing in CA), rugged, and bleak at this time of year. It reminds me of coastal Norway which, I've been told, does bear some resemblance to Iceland. the rock formations are quite similar in the Northwest and Norway. I only meant to distinguish the difference between reading Arnaldur in a cold, rocky, coastal setting and reading him in population 12 million, smoggy, 80 degrees Los Angeles, where I read the earlier 2 novels.

Peter, you won't be remotely reminded of Iceland in San Francisco. And not just because of the landscape.

I do plan to read all the Erlendur novels in order of their English-language publication.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspected that the resemblance must have something to do with rocks.

I have been to San Francisco before, and nothing about it suggested Iceland. I meant that if I was going to fly all the way across the country, I'd want to do some touring before and after the convention, perhaps up and down the coast.

I have wandered amid the redwoods in Santa Cruz and, while majestic and inspiring, they, too, reminded me not in the least of Iceland.

January 07, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

If you have never driven it before, taking Hwy 101, with detours to Hwy 1, is still a very enjoyable way to see the CA coast. Less enjoyable than when I was a kid, but still worth the drive, is the Jack London country E and N of San Francisco; the Valley of the Moon. It is still the quintessential California to this native daughter.

January 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may even have to get myself a driver's license again. Boy, quintessential California ... there's a term whose meaning may have changed somewhat over the past 150 years.

January 08, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Oh, yeah, today the Sonoma Cty landscape is an almost nonstop vista of vineyards and wineries (CA may relinquish being the US's vegetable bin but, by golly, we'll sure have plenty of wine!) but there are still patches of green and golden rolling hills and the scent of sage that always reminds me of Jack London's California-set stories and Frank Norris's descriptions of the landscape of the Central Valley in "The Octopus."

And I did think of one thing that Iceland and San Francisco might have in common -- both are extremely expensive for both inhabitants and tourists.

January 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The last time I was in San Francisco, I borrowed a friend's car for the day and drove from winery to winder in the Napa Valley. I am amazed that my friend entrusted me with his car.

Having seen the convention rate for the Bouchercon hotel -- the convention rate, mind you -- I can well believe that San Francisco is expensive.

I wonder how large the California outside the largest cities -- the Central alley, say -- looms in the nation's conscjousness.

January 08, 2010  

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