Miles from Iceland’s capital, a woman swimming in the mineral-laden waters of the Midnesheidi Moor lagoon comes across a badly bruised corpse. The pathologist on call can’t even count all the broken bones and isn’t able to come to a conclusion as to the cause of death. Not a drowning, not a fatal beating, not a traffic accident.
There’s no identification on the man, the only clues to his identity being the leather jacket and cowboy boots he had been wearing. Does this mean the man was an American? Or perhaps simply an Icelandic admirer of the United States?
It’s 1979 in Reykjavik. The Cold War is still going strong, and there’s a big American military base in Iceland’s capital. The base has split the country in two, with one side believing that the country needs strong defense during the Cold War and only the Americans can supply it, and the other side wanting the Americans to leave Iceland to manage on its own. And that divisiveness is nowhere more strongly felt than between the American military and the Icelandic police.
The day following the announcement of the body’s discovery, a woman calls the police to say it’s possible that the man might be her brother Kristvin; she hasn’t heard from him for several days, a highly unusual occurrence. A trip to the morgue verifies his identity, but his sister has no idea what took him to the remote moor or why anyone would want to kill him. He was a worker at the military base, but when the police attempt to question the base’s supervisor, it ignites the already existing tension between the two countries.
Erlandur (it’s the Icelandic way to refer to people by their first names only) Sveinsson has just been promoted to the rank of detective on the Reykjavik police force. At the same time he’s investigating Kristvin’s death, Erlandur is also looking into the decades-old disappearance of a teenage girl. Spurred on by a newspaper obituary of the girl’s father and knowing that the girl’s mother had died years before, Erlandur contacts Dagbjørt’s aunt, the girl’s only surviving relative.
He is doing this on his own time, he stresses to the aunt, not because any new information has come up but because she might be the only one alive with any answers as to what happened to her niece. What Erlandur doesn’t tell her is that the disappearance resonates only too strongly with an incident in his own life, one he has never been able to put behind him.
I have read all of Arnaldur Indridason’s novels. The sense they give of Iceland, its people, its geography, and its culture are incredibly strong. At the time this book takes place, the country has been independent of Denmark for only sixty years. It’s basically a nation of “peasants and farmers,” as Erlandur tells an American soldier, still trying to find its way into the modern world.
Erlandur is a wonderful character, a sensitive, moody man with a strong sense of purpose. Following his career has been a delight, and this flashback more than thirty years earlier answers some, if not all, of the questions as to what makes him the man he is.
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