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Book Author: Arnaldur Indridason

THE SHADOW DISTRICT by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland during World War II was changing, and the changes weren’t to everyone’s liking.  Before the war the country was a small farming community, remote from the rest of the world, ruled by Denmark.  But in 1944 Iceland became an independent republic while at the same time undergoing major social changes due to the influx of American and British troops who were stationed there before being sent to fight in Europe.

As in other countries where foreign armies were present, this created problems; in Iceland that became known as the Situation.  British and American soldiers were dating Icelandic women who were impressed by the foreigners’ sophistication, politeness, and wealth, a welcome change from the rural and unworldly Icelandic men, at least as they were perceived by the young women.

In wartime Reykjavik, Ingiborg is facing this problem.  Deciding to disregard her father’s stern prohibition about dating an American, she and her lover Frank have sneaked off to the abandoned National Theater, a favorite place for illicit romance.  Scarcely have they arrived when Ingiborg trips over some cardboard, and when she and Frank look down they see the body of a young woman.  Ingiborg wants to call the police, but Frank prevails and they flee the scene.

Fast forward to present day Reykjavik, where the body of an elderly man is found in his apartment after his neighbor calls police to say she hasn’t seen him in several days.  He’s lying peacefully on his bed, fully clothed, but obviously quite dead.  At first, given his advanced age, the police conclude that he died in his sleep, but the autopsy required by law shows that Stéfan Thórdarson was suffocated.

Konrád, a retired Reykjavik detective, has an interest in the case.  He has vague childhood memories about the murder in the Theater; it happened in his neighborhood, the Shadow District.  He seems to recall that his father had some connection to it, but he can’t remember exactly what it was.  He gets permission to search the apartment of the dead man, which is almost completely free of any personal items except for a photo of a handsome young man and three newspaper clippings about the death at the Theater.

The Shadow District goes back and forth in time between 1944 and now.  No one has ever been arrested in the young woman’s murder, even though it bore a resemblance to the disappearance and presumed death of another woman in northern Iceland a few years earlier.  The only seeming connection between the two deaths was the mention of Huldufólk in both cases. 

Huldufólk are elves or hidden people in Icelandic folklore, sometimes amusing and sometimes evil.  Shortly before the disappearance of the northern woman and the death of the woman in Reykjavik, each had spoken about being attacked by these elves.  The belief in these mythic beings runs deep in the country, even today.  And although many people say they don’t really believe in the hidden people, no one wants to totally dismiss them.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of Scandinavia’s most popular writers, winner of the Glass Key, the award for the best Nordic mystery novel, in 2002 and 2003.  The Shadow District is his first in a new series, and it’s a terrific beginning.  As always the author’s characters and plot are believable and engrossing, and the glimpses into Icelandic history are an added plus.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason on many websites.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

INTO OBLIVION by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

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.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason at various sites on the web.

Check out the http://www.marilynsmysteryreads.com.

JAR CITY by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland in the fall–it’s cold, dark, and rainy. A perfect setting for a “typical Icelandic crime” that turns out to be anything but.

Just a word of explanation at the beginning, taken from “A Note on Icelandic Names” that prefaces Jar City:  “Icelanders always address each other by first names…People are listed by their first names even in the telephone directory.”  So the following names are all first names.

Inspector Erlandur is called to investigate the murder of an elderly man after a neighbor’s young son discovers the body.  The apartment in which the victim is found is on the lower floor in a small apartment building, dark and dank.  It appears that Holberg was killed by a heavy glass ashtray being thrown at his head, not exactly a certain way to kill anyone.  As Erlandur’s assistant, Detective Sigurdur Oli comments, “Isn’t this your typical Icelandic murder?  Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.”

But there are two strange items in the apartment.  The first is the note left on the dead man’s body:  “I Am Him.”  The second is a faded photo hidden in a drawer; it’s a headstone over a little girl’s grave with the name Audur on it and the dates 1964-1968.

When Erlandur returns home after seeing Holberg’s body, he’s surprised by a visit from his daughter.  Eva Lind is a young woman with many problems, most notably drugs.  Erlandur and Eva Lind’s mother have been divorced for many years, and he’s had very little contact with her or her brother.  She comes to her father for money, which he refuses to give her.  Then she throw out her surprise–she’s pregnant.

Simultaneously, another crime is reported at the other end of the Icelandic social order.  A bride has disappeared on her wedding day, actually from the sumptuous wedding itself, leaving only the cryptic note “He’s a monster.  What have I done?”  The bride’s parents and her new husband profess to know no reason why she should have disappeared the way she did.  But for Erlandur, this needs to take a backseat to the murder of the old man.

A little investigation shows that Holberg was not a model citizen, to put it kindly. Many years ago he was accused of raping a young woman he met at a dance.  When the woman went to the police with her accusation, a hostile police officer refused to investigate, saying she had made the whole thing up.

In the background of the crimes is the question of what it means to be a father. Can one be a father if all he did was contribute his sperm during a rape?  Can one be a father if he sexually assaults his daughter?  Can one be a father if he has little or no contact with his children because of a divorce?  Like other Nordic writers, Indridason writes about social issues that arise in his country, issues of violence and domestic problems that are world-wide.

This book was one of the novels I read for the course I took this fall entitled “A Sense of Place:  Murder Mysteries ‘Round the World.” Jar City was written with an incredible sense of place.  The city of Reykjavik and the country of Iceland are brought fully to life.  It’s a place of great homogeneity, but it’s filled with secrets.  It’s not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is so beautifully written that it’s worth reading past the violence to delve into the culture of a country that is unfamiliar to many of us.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason at various web sites.