Friday, July 29, 2011

Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the latest episode in my Nordic Noir immersion campaign. Silence of the Grave, published in 2001, is the fourth novel in this Icelandic author's Detective Erlendur series, but only the second to be translated into English.

This book gets my personal award for Best Opening Line: "He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."

The infant's adolescent brother had picked up the rib bone on which she was teething when he and his friends were playing near a construction site on Reykjavik's outskirts.  Detective Erlendur comes onto the scene and finds a whole skeleton buried there.  At this point, the plot splits into two threads: In post-WWII Iceland, with a US Army base nearby, an Icelandic mother struggles to protect her children from the abusive wrath of her husband. Meanwhile, Erlendur and his colleagues try to identify the bones in the makeshift grave.

As he weaves a captivating crime story, Arnaldur (Icelanders are properly known by their given names, rather than their patronymics, such as Indriðason) includes some of his favourite themes: People who simply disappear into Iceland's remote and often stormy hinterlands, domestic violence, and secrecy.

Detective Erlendur is still coping with his drug-addicted daughter, his hate-filled ex-wife, and his son who is so remote as to barely warrant mention -- in other words, with the shambles of what had been his family. Erlendur's own family history, however, is tame in comparison to that of Grimur, the nasty, violent husband who terrorised his wife and children during the late 1940s. Like so many abusers, he appears to outsiders as a weak, inconsequential person, yet he heaps psychological and physical abuse in equal measure upon his wife and, to a lesser extent, the children.

The eldest son, Simon, discovers that his father is a Janus-faced character:
On his trips to Reykjavik, Simon discovered an aspect of Grímur that he took a while to assimilate and never wholly understood. At home, Grímur was surly and violent. Hated being spoken to. Foul-mouthed if he did speak, and coarse in the way he belittled his children and their mother; he made them serve his every need and woe betide any shirker. But in dealing with everyone else, the monster seemed to shed its skin and become almost human. On Simon's first trips to town he expected Grímur to act the way he always behaved at home, snarling abuse or swinging punches. He feared this, but it never happened. On the contrary. All of a sudden Grímur wanted to please everyone. He chattered away merrily to the merchant and bowed and scraped to people who entered the shop. He addressed them formally, even smiled. Shook their hands.

Grimur's step-daughter grows up to become a psychologist, and it is she who explains the dynamics of domestic abuse to Detective Erlendur. I suspect domestic violence is commonplace in Iceland, yet it seems that the Icelanders have only recently begun to speak of it or even acknowledge it as a social ill.  

Even an Icelandic crime novel needs some comic relief, and that comes in the person of the archaeologist who is excavating the skeleton, Skarphédinn. Detective Erlendur has a like-hate relationship with the man, who is maddeningly fastidious about his work, digging out the bones at a snail's pace.  He is fat, and his canine teeth look like two yellowed fangs hanging from beneath his unkempt mustache. Erlendur, fuming with impatience, periodically tries to wrangle some new information from the plodding professor.
"The bones haven't been in the ground for any great length of time. No more than 60 or 70 years, I'd say. Maybe even less. The clothes are still on them."
"Yes, here," Skarphédinn said, pointing with a fat finger. "And in more places, I'm certain."
"I thought that was flesh," Erlendur said sheepishly...
"Listen, Erlendur. We're working methodically. There's no other way to do it. Believe me."
"Yes, maybe there's no rush," Erlendur said.
"We'll get there in the end," Skarphédinn said, running his tongue over his fangs. 
Meanwhile, in another diversion, Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, is contending with his nymphomaniac and marriage-minded girlfriend.  He comes home one evening and realises that they're about to have that very serious conversation about two of his least favourite topics: Detective Erlendur and commitment.
Bergthóra was waiting for him when he got home. She had bought some red wine and was in the kitchen sipping it. Took out another glass and handed it to him.
"I'm not like Erlendur," Sigurdur Óli said. "Never say anything so nasty about me."
"But you want to be like him," Bergthóra said. She was cooking pasta and had lit candles in the dining room. A beautiful setting for an execution, Sigurdur Óli thought. "All men want to be like him," Bergthóra said.
"Aei, why do you say that?"
"Left to their own devices."

Erlendur is free and single, to be sure, but he also spends his spare time reading and thinking about Icelanders who disappear.  
Someone sets off from a farm, say. It's the middle of winter and the weather forecast is bad. Everyone tries to dissuade him. He ignores their advice, convinced he'll make it. The strangest thing about stories of people who freeze to death is that they never listen to advice. It's as if death lures them. They seem to be doomed.

Winter days in Iceland are entirely dark, and conversely at the height of summer, the sun never completely sets.  One would think that, as the days began to lengthen a bit, people would bend toward the sunlight like a potted houseplant.  And perhaps many Icelanders do, but Detective Erlendur is, unsurprisingly, not one of them.
It was eight in the evening. He tried to shut the bright spring evening out with the curtains, but it forced its way past them in places, dust-filled sunbeams that lit up the gloom in his flat. Spring and summer were not Erlendur's seasons. Too bright. Too frivolous. He wanted heavy, dark winters.


  1. You have an award...for your bright and cheerful personality. Come and claim it! ;)

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