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By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.
I’ve been a fan of Arnaldur Indriðason’s crime writing ever since falling for the cleverly woven plot in Silence of the Grave (2001) over a decade ago, and I still consider it the best book in his Detective Erlendur series.
However, through the years, with each new book in the series also being an independent novel, Erlendur’s character, his family and ghosts from the past were introduced again and again, taking away from the crime he was solving and making me grow tired of the quirky and grumpy detective with the mysterious past. And what’s more, I sensed that the author had also grown tired of him.
Therefore, I was relieved at first when I learned that Erlendur was absent in the two crime novels preceding Strange Shores, Outrage (2008) and Black Skies (2009), with his assistants taking the lead instead.
However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment because neither of the two were strong or interesting enough characters to drive the plot.
However, in Strange Shores Erlendur returns with a vengeance.
The story actually happens at the same time as the two books preceding it. Set in the East Fjords where Erlendur goes on vacation after the trials he faced while solving the crime in Hypothermia (2007)—Arnaldur’s best book since Silence of the Grave—it traces his footsteps until he goes missing, which regularly comes up in Outrage and Black Skies.
Fans of the series know that Erlendur hails from East Iceland. His family moved away from the region while Erlendur was in his pre-teens after his little brother Bergur was forever lost in a blizzard, an event which made Erlendur the flawed character he is.
Erlendur has since regularly returned to the abandoned farm where his family once lived, hiking the mountain Harðskafi, searching for his brother’s remains.
Inevitably, Erlendur also gets tangled up in another old mystery, about a young woman called Matthildur who disappeared while hiking across a mountain pass in a snowstorm decades earlier.
As her body was never found, all sorts of theories and mysteries had arisen but at the time the story is set, hardly anyone remembers Matthildur anymore.
This makes Erlendur even more eager to stir up hidden emotions and discover dirty secrets, as determined to reveal Matthildur’s fate and what became of her body as that of his brother.
As Erlendur’s investigation into Matthildur’s case progresses, so does that into the fate of his brother. For the very first time in the series, this part of the recurring plot is actually going somewhere. We learn more about Erlendur’s past and childhood years, which is very refreshing.
To create an interesting background for the story, it is set during the boom years before the financial crash in 2008. In East Iceland the giant dam at Kárahnjúkar and the Alcoa aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður are being built and, on a side note, the story includes the locals’ reaction to the project.
Moreover, the landscape of the East Fjords, the high mountains, rough seas and harsh winter weather, are painted vividly with the author’s words, while bits of history from the area, such as the rescue of British soldiers who were about to die of exposure in a snowstorm in 1942, add further layers to it.
Arnaldur has a knack for creating deep and meaningful characters and is a master of describing human emotion. Strange Shores certainly does these skills of his justice and, best of all—after years of standstill—we finally get to know Erlendur’s feelings better.
However, as thrilling as it is, the plot drags on a little too long. The story could have been condensed. It is also regularly broken up with dreamlike accounts, which I assume originate from the main character while in distress. They don’t really add much until the very end as they are all similar and don’t seem to lead anywhere.
To me, Strange Shores was certainly a more exciting read than the two books preceding it—fans of the Detective Erlendur series will not be disappointed—and Matthildur’s story alone was interesting enough to convince me to keep reading.
I don’t mean to give anything away, but while Arnaldur rekindled my interest in Erlendur, I was left a bit baffled with how his story eventually trailed off.
And I’m honestly a bit concerned about the detective’s fate as the following books, Einvígið (2011) and Reykjavíkurnætur (2012), are ‘blasts from the past’ and his latest novel Skuggasund (2013) described as potential for a new detective series.
While I agree that it may be time to put the old detective to rest, his story should be concluded in such a way that all loose ends have been tied and readers can accept his destiny. However, I don’t doubt that Arnaldur has many more stories in store for us.
Originally published by Vaka-Helgafell as Furðustrandir in 2010, Strange Shores is now widely available on the English-language literature market, including amazon.com.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org