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Since Henning Mankell's work came to my attention, I've become interested in Scandinavian crime fiction and have now read quite a lot of work by Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish authors. I had also heard of an Icelandic author called Arnaldur Indridason (I know Iceland isn't part of Scandinavia, but certainly literature-wise, it is often lumped in with other Scandinavian countries - to us foreigners at least), but until I came across this book in a charity shop recently, I hadn't managed to get hold of any of his work. I settled down in the knowledge that, according to the Daily Mail at least, if I liked Henning Mankell's work, I'd like this. I should add now that apart from writing police procedurals and being from countries vaguely in the same direction, that these two authors don't have a great deal in common - but then, I should have known better than to believe anything the Daily Mail says! Despite this, I really enjoyed this book.
Building work in the suburbs of Reykjavik uncover a skeleton that seems to have been in the ground for many years. Although the death is almost certainly murder, excavation work is clearly going to take many days, so in the meantime, Detective Erlendur and his loyal team consisting of female detective Elinborg and detective Sigurdur Oli, begin the investigation. The area where the skeleton is found hasn't been lived on for many years, so the first thing to research is who last lived there. This is not so easy to discover, because the last house on the site was lived in during the Second World War; records are few and far between and most of the people that know anything about it are now dead. Slowly, however, the police team begin to make progress.
At the same time, Erlendur receives a phone call from his estranged daughter, who cries for help, although doesn't say what the problem is, or where she can be found. When Erlendur finally finds his heavily pregnant daughter, she is in a coma and loses her baby. Unconscious, the doctors have no idea if she will ever come round again. This brings Erlendur's family problems to a head, so that he is forced to both cope with this and the investigation at the same time? Will his daughter survive? And will the origin of the skeleton and the crime be discovered?
As a detective, there is nothing particularly original about Erlendur. I cannot count the number of detectives there are world-wide that have family and drink problems and are deeply cynical - Erlendur is yet another. He is certainly a thinking man rather than a man of action. The story of the problems he had with his marriage and children does bring his sensitive side out though; the author brings these out well in the conversations that Erlendur has with his unconscious daughter, which makes him much more likeable than many detectives. We find out very little about Erlendur's team members; except that Sigurdur Oli's partner is a sex maniac who wants them to marry and have children as soon as possible - frankly, I thought this was too much information, but I suppose it brings a bit of colour to the character.
What did stand out about the characters in this book was the portrayal of one of the people who had lived in the area where the skeleton was found. A victim of domestic violence, the author discribes her suffering at the hands of her husband and her struggle to bring up her children to the best of her ability. This was particularly well described and as such, was very moving. Painful though it was to read, I like to see issues such as domestic violence, dealt with in books - it is something that is all so often incomprehensible to those who have not suffered it, but I think that the more it is brought out into the open, the better.
It wasn't completely obvious from the start how the book was going to end, but I wasn't particularly surprised at the outcome either. What made it a good story was the process of getting there. I think most fans of crime fiction enjoy reading about other people's problems and how they are dealt with, be it in a positive or negative way, and there is certainly plenty of this here. The story skips from strand to strand of the story, often within a single chapter, but this is rarely confusing and helps to add nicely to the pace of the story, so that I found myself hard-pushed to put the book down. Luckily, it is not a particularly long book or I would have had more than the one sleepless night that I had.
In many ways, there is very little in this book to set it apart from British works of crime fiction and some may question why they should read a book by a foreign author when they can get just as much pleasure out of a British one. What I like is the insight into Icelandic society, the way that people live and also the history - for example, I didn't know that British and American forces were based in Iceland during the Second World War. Whilst reading for pleasure, I'm also increasing my knowledge of the world, and I get a big kick out of this.
The book is, of course, translated from the original Icelandic, but as I have usually experienced with other books, there is absolutely no problem with the translation whatsoever; in fact, it could have been written in English.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Vintage (UK), it has 224 pages. ISBN: 9780099469544
Building work in an expanding Reykjavik uncovers a shallow grave. Years before, this part of the city was all open hills, and Erlendur and his team hope this is a typical Icelandic missing person scenario; perhaps someone once lost in the snow, who has lain peacefully buried for decades. Things are never that simple. Whilst Erlendur struggles to hold together the crumbling fragments of his own family, his case unearths many other tales of family pain. The hills have more than one tragic story to tell: tales of failed relationships and heartbreak; of anger, domestic violence and fear; of family loyalty and family shame. Few people are still alive who can tell the story, but even secrets taken to the grave cannot remain hidden forever.