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Steig Larsson has a lot to answer for. After reading and loving his Millennium trilogy, I was interested in discovering further Scandinavian crime fiction and thrillers. When Amazon suggested I might like this book, I was keen to read it. I didn't know this author but it seems he has written a number of Reykjavik based murder mysteries. Sadly, it was the fact that this book was part of a set that was my problem with this book, apparently the fourth in the series.
As part of the series, the main detective is a chap called Erlendur. That is all we know, I don't even know his first name. He has two colleagues that also appear regularly in the book, but we don't know their first names either, or what they look like as physical descriptions are thin on the ground. I don't know if this was revealed in previous books. There is no introduction to Erlendur or his colleagues, no back story as such. Things that happened in previous books are referred to but not clarified. For example Erlendur went to visit someone in rehab early on in the book. This person obviously knew him personally, but their actual connection was not mentioned. It was only later in the book that I realised that she was his daughter, and there has been an apparently ongoing saga with drug addition. If I had read previous books I would presumably have known this. As the book progressed, most of my questions about Erlendur's life and past history were cleared up, albeit briefly. They were mainly answered by piecing things together myself through snippets mentioned in the text however, rather than a brief paragraph of clarification early on. I think this would also have been helpful for previous readers of the series to jog their memories too. Throughout the book, however, there was still the feeling that I was missing something. This meant I never felt that I 'knew' the characters, I could not describe Erlendur's background to you, or his personality other than he was a divorced loner, with two estranged children, one of which has problems with drugs. This meant that I was never fully engaged with the characters.
My gripes with the character of Erlendur and his life aside, these books are popular for a reason. Author Arnaldur Indridason has seemingly well researched his topic. A skeleton, weighed down by an old Cold War listening device, has been uncovered in a lake as the water level has been slowly receding. Erlendur and his colleagues set about solving the mystery of the unknown person who had been laying in the lake for decades by researching people who had gone missing about the same time. At the same time there is a completely different strand featuring young, Icelandic, socialist students at university in Leipzig, East Germany during the 1950s. It is not hard for the reader to establish a connection between the two - if there are only two major plots within a crime novel, it is unlikely that one of them is red herring. Unfortunately the detectives do not have the benefit of reading the other strand and take a bit longer to catch up! I found both strands interesting - I particularly enjoyed learning about life in East Germany for the students, who found their political ideals being challenged by the reality of life behind the iron curtain. At the same time, I got used to Erlendur, and was intrigued by some of the sub-plots that were revealed through his present day investigations. I think Indridason did a good job in his descriptions of both environments; the story was convincing, it didn't get far-fetched and plot twists were subtle and generally believable.
Overall, in spite of my initial reservations, I did enjoy the book. As a traditional style murder mystery, this ticked the boxes for me, as the mystery is credible and engaging, with a satisfactory conclusion. It is well-written and the English translation uses British words and colloquialisms. Obviously I was disappointed with Erlendur as a character, but I did get used to him, though I never really got to like him, or find him interesting as I didn't fully understand him and what made him tick. Perhaps this is established earlier in the series. I would recommend this book overall, but with the caveat that I think it is best to read the books in order (Jar City is the first), and certainly I am intrigued enough to give this series a go from the beginning.