Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, cover photo courtesy of Forlagid.
My boyfriend got Silence of the Grave (2001) for Christmas shortly after its publication. I thought the title was tacky and was certain the story would be just as lame. Neither of us had heard of the author, Arnaldur Indridason, before. We lived abroad and didn’t know about all the excitement he had caused in the world of Icelandic crime literature.
Because he had nothing better to do, my boyfriend began reading the book, and even after the first page he was hooked. I became curious and began reading it too, sneaking into it when he wasn’t looking. After that there was no going back. We fought over the book until we had both finished it and were left with a feeling of utter satisfaction and anticipation to read more by Iceland’s new king of crime fiction.
Hardskafi (2007) is Indridason’s best book since the publication of Silence of the Grave. Named after a mountain in east Iceland, the title indicates where the story is headed, back to the childhood home of detective Erlendur, back into his past, into the depths of his soul. But, it does not make the same mistake as some of his earlier books, like Voices (2003), where Erlendur’s life dominates the story and interrupts the plot. Erlendur stays in the shadows, while a more exciting story is portrayed in the limelight.
A woman is found dead on a cold and dark Icelandic autumn evening in her summerhouse by Thingvallavatn Lake. Her body is dangling by a rope, a horrific sight in the midst of the beautiful surroundings of Thingvellir National Park. There is no sign of a struggle and her death is written off as a suicide. Circumstances of the suicide and compassion for the woman who took her life prompts Erlendur to investigate her case—a closed case—on his own time and without help from his partners Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli.
Erlendur’s investigation leads him into the world of mysticism, spiritisim and the belief in the afterlife. The world of mediums, who claim they can contact the dead and pass on messages to those left behind, of lost souls, of dark and hidden secrets. Through the story readers experience the clash of education and religion, of old values with the modern way of life. The book explores the boundaries of crimes, redefines the role of detectives and dives headlong into to cold reality of Iceland’s past and present.
If you like suspense thrillers and take an interest in the occult, Hardskafi will give you goosebumps and send shivers down your spine while keeping your undivided attention in a deadlock until the very end. It is a crime novel at its very best, and it aims to entertain but does not pretend to do anything else. It is not a literary masterpiece but it is well worth reading. It does, however, leave one in speculation and plays on one’s emotions, and although it is distinctively an Indridason novel it also differs from the rest, mainly through Erlendur’s solo act. I should criticize it for barely mentioning his two partners; but in fact, I didn’t even realize they were missing until turning the last page. The novel was complete without them.
I still think Silence of the Grave is Indridason’s best book, and so, apparently, does the expert community of crime literature. In 2005, Silence of the Grave received the Gold Dagger Award—granted to the best crime novel every year by the British Crime Writer’s Association, which launched Indridason into a league that includes Minette Walters and Patricia Cornwell. Silence of the Grave also received the Glass Key, an annual award for the best Nordic crime novel, in 2003, and the year before that Indridason’s Tainted Blood (2000) received the award, which was later filmed as Jar City (2006) by Baltasar Kormákur.
Although Indridason may have started a new trend in Icelandic crime literature with his first book Sons of Dust (1997) and a crime wave, so to speak, with the publication of Tainted Blood three years later, which earned him widespread popularity on the local market and marked his breakthrough internationally, he is, in fact, riding the wave of a Scandinavian success formula.
Most of Indridason’s books are independent stories, yet connected through their hero, middle-aged, old-fashioned and grumpy detective Erlendur, who is haunted by demons from his past and is struggling to gain footing in a modern world. Erlendur reminds one in many ways of detective Konrad Sejer, featured in Norway’s suspense queen Karin Fossum’s crime novels. The style of writing by these two authors is similar, and other Nordic writers apply the same style to their thrillers, so although Indridason is good, he is not all that original.
The world seems to be embracing Nordic-style crime literature and Indridason’s books have been published in 26 countries and translated into at least ten different languages. Hardskafi, which sold more copies than any other book in Iceland last year, will follow in their wake in 2009.
Publisher: Vaka-Helgafell. Price: ISK 4,790 (USD 70, EUR 50).
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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir graduated with a Bachelors degree in communication studies from the University of Erfurt, Germany, in 2004. In 2006, she graduated with a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Westminster, London. She has worked as the web editor for Iceland Review since October 2006. Eygló received an award for her entries in a nationwide short story competition in 1997, 1998 and 1999.