The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

draining lakeI think I’ve missed a review or two of the Erlendur series, but I love it a great deal, The Draining Lake being no exception. The book starts with an odd premise, the draining lake of the title. A human skeleton that is murdered and tied to a Russian radio device appears as the lake drains. While a theory about why the lake is draining appears pretty early in the book, the mystery of the skeleton is a much more involving plot, and it involves East Germany, spies, and university students during the height of the Cold War.

I’m not always a fan of books that shift between the past and present, but I was so wrapped up in the backstory (political and personal), and so impressed that the switches between the past and the present felt organic instead of a forced structure that I didn’t mind. Not only is the paranoia in East Germany rendered very vividly, there are just terribly heartbreaking elements threaded throughout the story. I was very impressed with this book.

On the police-procedural-in-Iceland front, I was glad that every main detective had a big non-work plot going. Erlendur’s romantic and family relationships keep moving along (or at least moving in circles), Elinborg launches a successful cook book, and we actually see Oli’s personal life in glimpses.

I read this book while watching early episodes of The Americans, and while I love spy stuff, I realize that I can’t double up on it or my dreams take a very strange turn.Or maybe I just don’t expect my stress dreams to involve spying.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder

Vintage Books, 2010

Originally published as Kleifarvatn, 2004

I bought my copy of the book.

Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason

voicesVoices by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder


Originally published as Röddin, 2003


While he was waiting Erlendur looked at the souvenirs in the shop, sold at inflated prices: plates with pictures of Gullfoss and Geysir painted on them, a carved figurine of Thor with his hammer, key rings with fox fur, posters showing whale species off the Icelandic coast, a sealskin jacket that would set him back a month’s salary. He thought about buying a memento of this peculiar Tourist-Iceland that exists only in the minds of rich foreigners, but he couldn’t see anything cheap enough. p. 185

Voices takes place in a sort of version of Tourist-Iceland. Inspector Erlendur investigates the stabbing death of a hotel Santa Claus found in sordid circumstances in the basement of said hotel just before Christmas, which is peak tourist season. Erlendur takes up residence in the hotel for less than a week, but this is not a sort of locked-room mystery: there are too many people coming and going from the hotel and he’s pressured not to alarm the guests too much so the hotel is not on lockdown during the investigation.

Parallel to the murder investigation, Elinborg is handling a trial of suspected child abuse that she can’t avoid being affected by, and Erlendur remembers many more details about the disappearance of his younger brother, a story I was eager to read after the last installment in the series.

The story of the deceased Santa, a former child star on the brink of international fame as a pre-pubescent choirboy, was affecting in parts and a bit predictable in parts. I do admit the actual murderer was a surprise for me though. Elinborg’s case was more affecting and surprising to me.

This series is one of my favorites, and though this book didn’t affect me as much as Silence from the Grave, it was still a good story. Sometimes I actually get back to series I love more than once a year, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime (Norman), The Game’s Afoot (Jose Ignacio), and Novel Heights (Suzi).

I bought my copy of the book.

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

last ritualsLast Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir,
Translated by Bernard Scudder
William Morrow, 2007
Originally published as Þriðja táknið, 2005

I read this despite the marketing copy on the cover, and I’m glad I did. “An Icelandic novel of secret symbols, medieval witchcraft, and modern murder,” sounds like something a la Dan Brown, and that’s not my favorite kind of read. A professor discovers the gruesome corpse of a student from Germany, and the deceased’s family hires lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to be a sort of consultant to enable them to check on the Icelandic police investigation. She’s more than a translator, but her role is fairly murky. She seemed to act more as an additional police investigator or private investigator instead of a lawyer.

Last Rituals reminded me a bit of Elly Griffiths: a non-traditional main character, lots of folklore and history in the background, and a modern murder, yes. There was a lot of background exposition, but the writing felt brisk to me: I didn’t mind the backstory of the odd historical studies of the deceased, and the black magic and witchhunt portions of the story didn’t seem to be exploitative. Thora and Michael seemed pretty dispassionate about the kind of person the deceased was, and I think that was because the actual murder was so gruesome. I’m interested in seeing where this series goes.

I bought my copy of the book.

Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Bernard Scudder

Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin Minotaur, 2004

Erlendur book 3 (first to be translated into English)

I picked up Jar City because I keep seeing Indridason’s name on award shortlists and, frankly, because I’m on a mission to read crime novels from as many countries as possible.  Starting early in a series has its drawbacks:  some early books are more uneven than later ones, but I was very pleased with this book.

Jar City centers on Inspectur Erlendur’s investigation into the braining-by-ashtray death of Holberg, an older man with a horrid past.  It’s difficult to care about such an unsympathetic murder victim, but Indridason makes it work because he shows the long-ranging effects of Holberg’s actions.

Another way Indridason gets the reader to care about the murder of a pretty horrid man is to make his hero so sympathetic.  Erlendur sounds like a typical police procedural hero:  fiftyish, divorced, difficult relationship with his adult children, a loner, and plagued by health problems.  Thankfully he is aware of his potential for burnout.  While Erlendur has a rocky relationship with his drug addicted and newly pregnant daughter Eva Lind, it’s refreshing that he’s aware of his shortcomings in his dealings with her.  Also, the funniest personal bit about Erlendur in the book is that he likes to read about “ordeals and fatalities in the wilderness,” in his spare time.

Indridason’s book feels brisk because none of the scenes are too long.  While it’s not a thrill-a-minute book, Jar City doles out its revelations at a steady pace.  Also, the nature of the investigation, particularly the forensic evidence, is interesting because it’s not typically the type of investigation I read about.

Finally, a note on the tone of the book.  Finding out what a jar city is was pretty horrifying, and I feel like the book as a whole worked on the same principle.  Yes, a murder is a horrible crime, but what is more horrible is finding out who the victim was and what led the murderer to kill him.