It seems like only yesterday that, for us in the UK, Iceland was a not-very-far away country of which we knew not very much. There was Magnus Magnusson, and then the Sugar Cubes and Bjork, but that was about it. Then there was a period when Icelanders seemed to be buying up all our retailers (at one point including the frozen food chain, Iceland, if I recall correctly). And after that it turned out that they’d lost all their own money and quite a bit of ours, and shortly after that one of their volcanoes managed to shut down most of Europe’s airspace. For a small, relatively sparsely populated country, that’s quite an impact.
Sometime in the middle of all that, in 2005, another Icelander, Arnaldur Indridason won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Golden Dagger for his book, Silence of the Grave. That victory indirectly sparked a controversy as books in translation were subsequently rendered ineligible for the Golden Dagger, and the CWA instead instituted the International Dagger for translated crime fiction. I don’t propose to wade into that controversy, which seems still to retain some heat several years on, except to observe that these Icelanders seem to have a knack of stirring things up, which is probably no bad thing.
I read and enjoyed Silence of the Grave at the time. It seemed to me that much of the book’s power lay less in its plotting or characters, fine as those were, than in its depiction of a society in transition, its history buried but still strangely alive. The book draws an explicit parallel between police detection and archeology, and its unfolding narrative mixes the two in a story more concerned with the uncovering of truth than the dispensing of justice. I found the book intriguing, but, for one reason or another, hadn’t returned to Indridason’s books until very recently when I picked up The Draining Lake, a later episode in the career of his main protagonist, DI Erlendur. Like the earlier book, The Draining Lake also hovers between the present and the past, here exploring the links between Iceland and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The theme again is one of discovery, the past literally coming to light. The image that gives the book its title resonates through the narrative – receding waters uncovering a long-dead body weighed down by a broken radio transmitter. Although the police procedural elements are relatively conventional, the book seems essentially a meditation on absence and loss. Erlendur himself obsesses about missing persons, provoked by the childhood disappearance of his own brother. Members of his own family come and go, vanishing from his life. We read of a woman apparently abandoned by her partner, decades before. The story revolves around the arrest and disappearance of a dissident in the old East Germany. Other characters – some peripheral, some central – suffer their own losses, always unexpected, often unexplained.
There has been much written about the melancholia of Scandinavian crime fiction, and it’s true that much Nordic crime fiction does seem to tap into a particular mood of sadness and loss (though we shouldn’t forget that, as is amply demonstrated by Jo Nesbo and Indridason’s fellow Icelander Yrsa Sigurdardottir, it can also be filled with a splendidly dry wit). I don’t know whether that’s a question of culture or temperament or just geography, but it seems often to produce fiction which, as here, is haunted by the ghosts of recent history.