Iceland’s economic crash gives texture to two crime novels.
Arnaldur Indridason is a well-known and best-selling Icelandic author, many of whose novels have been translated into English. His books are police-procedurals, usually featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson as the protagonist, but in Black Skies, Erlendur is away and a previously supporting character, Sigurdur Óli, carries this story. Like the best crime novels, Black Skies is largely character-based and Óli, morose, conservative, judgemental, is a fascinating character, his unsympathetic attributes mitigated by his honesty, loneliness and growing self-reflection. He is also capable of change, which is interesting in a series character:
He had been touched by the boy in the film clip. It was a new experience, as he rarely felt any sympathy for the luckless individuals he came across in the line of duty … His usual attitude was that these people were responsible for their own plight … He was often criticised for his cynicism and detachment but this meant nothing to him … Andrés’s plight was having an inexplicably strong impact on him.
Persuaded by a friend he meets at a school reunion (where he doubts his career choice as he meets much more successful old schoolmates) to visit blackmailers and apply some police clout, Óli finds Lina, one of the blackmailing couple, badly beaten and near death. The blackmail involves ‘swingers’ and Lina and her husband have been secretly taking pictures of the husband- and wife-swapping sexual encounters they have instigated. Motives for her beating seem to come down to the blackmail, drug debts, or her knowledge of a banking and money-laundering rort.
Meanwhile, introduced by a prologue in which we see him constructing a horrific death mask, we also have Andy’s story – one of child-abuse, paedophilia and revenge – which winds in and out of the main narrative:
There had been a mask like this on the farm when he was a boy, though it had been made of iron rather than leather … The iron, which was rusty in places, had felt cold to the touch, and he had noticed there were dried bloodstains around the spike hole … The farmer had picked up his big hammer and struck the spike a single heavy blow which drove it deep into the calf’s head. The animal collapsed on the spot and did not move again.
Eventually Andy’s story collides with Óli’s and another murder is discovered. Yet a third murder story emerges later in the book – tentatively linked to Lina’s – that of one of the rorting financiers.
Battling disillusionment with his job, some unwelcome introspection and the emotions attending the final ending between him and his ex-wife, as well as his own melancholy nature, Óli manages to bring all three murders to a resolution. In the end the motives are classically simple: revenge, blackmail and greed.
The novel is set at the height of the false economic boom, while the banks’ and developers’ borrowing and lending frenzy is in full flight, on the brink of plunging Iceland into bankruptcy and recession, and the details that emerge of financial corruption across the board add fascinating texture to the crime stories, and provide motivation for one of the murders. Black Skies is as much a novel about a country on the edge of disaster as it is about individual crimes, as well as one honest man’s journey through a crumbling moral landscape. Greed is at the heart of Iceland’s economic crisis, just as it is fundamental to individual and more personal crimes.
The writing is strong and unsentimental, but also evocative, and the dour Óli comes to life on the page as he tramps the mean streets, a man who is not himself mean … lifting what is basically a fairly standard police-procedural into a grim parable.
Black Skies carries the best elements of what makes many Scandinavian crime novels outstanding in the genre – an underlying philosophy and ethical framework imbuing both characters and story, a self-reflective narrative tone and a portrait of a society in the throes of change, not necessarily for the better. Indridason is a must-read for fans of Scandinavian crime – there are seven previous novels available in translation.
Interestingly, Quentin Bates, author of Cold Comfort, is an Englishman who spent ten years in Iceland and still revisits the country. He would only need to change his name to Batesson to get away with being seen as an Icelandic writer. He seems to have an intimate and authentic sense of the place and the characters.
Cold Comfort is set just after the financial catastrophe, when the prototypes of Indridason’s characters in Black Skies have finally burst the balloon and all the bad debts have come tumbling down to engulf everybody. Houses are being repossessed, businesses are closing down and declaring bankruptcy; banks are reneging on loans and going broke themselves.
This is the second novel featuring Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir, a police sergeant from the small town of Hvalvik, who in this story has been promoted to Reykjavik to head up a Serious Crimes Unit.
The two books are very similar in structure: Cold Comfort also features a preface, where we meet two characters – Ommi (who has apparently just escaped from prison) and his girlfriend Selma – who will appear again later as they intersect with the main storyline. Elmore Leonard, in his Rules for Writing, said never have a prologue, but I think they work extremely well in crime novels, setting up a teaser for a parallel storyline, forecasting action, providing an alternative point of view and adding narrative suspense while the reader keeps their details at the back of the mind.
Gunna becomes involved in the search for Ommi and the novel swerves between his story and Gunna’s main investigation into the murder of a celebrity ex-TV presenter, Svanhildur (Svani). The third storyline is that of Jon, a bankrupt, whose marriage has broken up, looking for revenge on the developers and financiers who have destroyed his life.
As with Black Skies, the three stories interconnect in various ways. Svani’s death is connected to financial corruption and involves some of the same players in Jon’s story: politicians, businessmen, bankers and various other lowlifes. Ommi, too, has his own connections here.
All the stroylines converge eventually and are resolved after a lot of groundwork by Gunna and her team. At least one of the murders is the direct result of Iceland’s economic disaster, again illustrating that the personal is the political, and vice versa; the others are indirectly linked through people trying to protect their money, assets and reputations.
And again, as with Black Skies, the things that lift this novel above the conventional police-procedural are the original characterisations, the strong sense of place and culture and the underlying current of ethical and moral standards struggling to be upheld in an increasingly corrupt world.
Gunna is a very attractive character. A widowed mother of two teenage children, she is matter-of-fact, stubborn, practical and humorous. Slipping into her point of view is like being told a story by a trustworthy and beloved friend. She is very different from Sigurdur Óli – the light and hopeful to his dark and cynical. Although she has the normal dose of cops’ cynicism herself, Gunna doesn’t allow this attitude to colour her entire life. Like Óli, she is a beacon of honesty in a world of greed and dirty deals.
Cold Comfort is also well-written and emotionally charged without being sentimental. Both novels, although neither contains much descriptive writing, are highly evocative of place and Iceland, with its snow and ice and lava fields comes vividly to life. The exoticism of this small country is certainly part of the fascination of these books – six degrees of separation are here more like two, with such a small population, and this adds interest. And finally, who could fail to be charmed by the Icelandic names: Svanhildur, Steingrimur, Gunnlauger, Thorfinnur, Bergthóra, Gudmunda and Ingólfur, to name a few, not to mention the intriguing family names with their ‘sons’ and ‘dottirs’.
Arnaldur Indridason Black Skies, Harvill Secker, 2012, PB, 336pp, $32.95
Quentin Bates, Cold Comfort, Constable & Robinson, 2012, PB, 336pp, $19.95