Saturday, August 18, 2012

Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason

It's Christmastime in Iceland as this novel opens, so can one reasonably expect a merrier mystery than usual from Arnaldur Indridason?  Hardly.

A maid at a Reykjavik hotel has just found Santa Claus (who is also the hotel's portly, middle-aged doorman) stabbed to death in his basement room, wearing his festive red costume and a condom.  Only an Icelander, I think, could open a book with a scene like this and resist the urge to have some salacious fun with it. Chief Detective Erlendur simply moves into one of the hotel rooms -- bitterly cold as the radiator does not work -- and views it as a refreshing change from sitting alone in his apartment. From this new base, he plods through the murder case, ignoring his colleagues' questions about how he plans to celebrate Christmas.

The victim's room yields few clues apart from the cadaver -- the murdered man seemed to own nothing, apart from a framed poster of Shirley Temple in "The Little Princess" and a couple of LPs of a children's choir.  Interviews prove unenlightening as none of the hotel staff seem to know anything about the victim, although he'd worked at the hotel for decades. The man's own sister and father seem irked that Erlendur has troubled them to come to Reykjavik for questioning, claiming they'd had no contact with the murdered man for decades. The hotel manager of course just wants to avoid scandal. No one seems to give a damn about the deceased doorman.

This troubles Erlendur, who has his own gloomy interest in Icelanders who vanish, some never to be seen again.
Sometimes he bought a bottle of Chartreuse at Christmas and had a glass beside him while he read about ordeals and death in the days when people travelled everywhere on foot and Christmas could be the most treacherous time of the year. Determined to visit their loved ones, people would battle with the forces of nature, go astray and perish; for those awaiting them back home, Christmas turned from a celebration of salvation to a nightmare. The bodies of some travellers were found. Others were not. They were never found. These were Erlendur's Christmas carols.
The voice of the murdered doorman, however, lives on. Erlendur discovers that one of the hotel's guests is an English collector of children's choral music, and he reports that the doorman had been a renowned boy singer in his youth, making only two recordings -- the LPs found in his room -- before disappearing from view. Those recordings are reportedly worth a fortune to collectors, and as he digs further into this line of inquiry, Erlendur uncovers a miserable childhood with a maniacal, controlling stage-father and ending disastrously when the boy's voice breaks at the beginning of a major concert performance. The path from promising child star to sordidly murdered non-entity is heart-breaking. Erlendur's investigation is hobbled by the classic Icelandic reticence to discuss one's family tragedies in public, even with a detective. Much as it frustrates him professionally, Erlendur also excels at bottling up his own history and emotions as his own daughter, a recovering addict, demands to know more about him.

It's not easy being a misfit in the stern, stoic culture of Iceland. Some retreat, some turn to drugs and alcohol, and some simply disappear during the long winter nights.

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