Arnaldur Indriðason: Silence of the Grave (Reykjavík Murder Mysteries 2) aka Grafarþögn (2001) An Icelandic Mystery

Silence Of The Grave (Reykjavik Murder Mysteries 2)

Building work in an expanding Reykjavík 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.

Silence of the Grave is the second of Indriðason’s successful mysteries. When reviewing Sjón the other day I had forgotten that I had the German edition (Todeshauch) of this book somewhere. Very much in the mood to read more Icelandic literature I picked it up and was hooked right away. I wouldn’t compare it to Mankell though (as it is usually done in Germany), they don’t have a lot in common apart from two disillusioned inspectors and being disillusioned is all the two inspectors have in common. Mankell’s books are much more psychological. Indriðason is bleaker, drearier. You’d better put a coat on should you read this as it is chilly, very chilly. Picture one of the Absolute Vodka adds. Right, that’s how cold it is. In every sense. We tend to forget that Iceland is not only about beautiful landscapes but there is the city of Reykjavík in which the people have pretty much the same problems as anywhere else. Delinquency, drugs, child abuse, domestic violence. And all this in a climatically challenged setting of excessively long winter nights and never ending summer days.

The novel starts in April and already it is getting dark after 9 p.m. and the days start in the wee hours of the morning.

Inspector Erlendur is divorced. He has two children he rarely sees. One is a junky, lying in a coma all through the novel,  the other is completely estranged from him. His ex-wife hates him. This is important as his personal story gets as much attention as the crime that is to be solved. Both stories are interwoven with a third story line that takes place during WWII. This third story is one of the worst stories of domestic violence I have ever read.  We know that this is somehow tied to the crime that has to be solved. It is also interesting to read about Iceland during WWII.

In the beginning of the novel it is not a 100% clear if there really has been a crime. Children find some human bones on a construction site. Archeologists have to dig them out with painstaking slowness. It takes the whole book until we know who is buried. What is discovered is very surprising. There are as many differnet possibilities with regard to the victims as with regard to the murderers.

I am not always happy when authors jump back and forth in time and mix many story lines but Indriðason did a good job. He also did a good job at describing Iceland and its harsh winters. The moment you leave Reykjavík you are at the mercy of nature. Many people get lost in winter during storms and die a white death. A handy cover-up for many a crime, as we are told.

Silence of the Grave was very different from any other crime novel I have read so far. No comparing it to Mankell (more psychlogical), Larsson (more elaborate) or Nesbø (bad!), please. I liked reading it, kept on guessing and wondering who, where, why, when but I am not sure I am sufficiently interested in Erlendur and his life to read another one in this series soon.

I am always fascinated how different covers look in other countries. The one I have is the blue hardback one. I think it does the book more justice than the English and the German paperbacks.

Roger Martin du Gard: Confidence africaine aka African Secret (1931)

Confidence africaine

Roger Martin du Gard, one of the less famous French Nobel prize laureates is mostly known for his huge eight-part novel cycle Les Thibault, the story of a family from the turn of the century until the end of WWI. Almost all of his efforts have gone into this immense work. Apparently it was Tolstoi’s War and Peace that triggered his writing. I was always interested in du Gard but I didn’t dare diving into that ocean called Les Thibault. I am sure this is wrong as its most prominent features  are the wide range of human relationships and the graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes which would fascinate me. And I would be especially interested in the seventh volume, L’Eté 1914 (“Summer 1914”), that contains the dramatic description of Europe’s nations being swept into war.

Roger Martin du Gard  wrote a few lesser known books one of which is Confidence africaine, a short piece of fiction of barely 80 pages. It is short but wonderfully accomplished. The narrator, called du Gard, visits a friend’s son in a sanatorium. In the sanatorium he meets the Italian Leonardo who visits his nephew Michele. Leonardo and his family live in North Africa. They own a library. Some months later du Gard visits him when travelling in Northern Africa and stays at their house. Leonardo lives with his sister and her husband under the same roof. When du Gard’s stay ends both men take a ship and set over to France. During a long, warm and enchanted night, Leonardo tells du Gard the secret of his incestuous relationship with his sister. This is told as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It is neither analyzed, nor rationalized, just told. It seems though as some of the sad developments that took place in their lives are considered by Leonard to be related to the incest.

I was wondering if du Gard, who was a friend of André Gide and also homosexual, meant to question what we tend to call deviant sexuality. I don’t know that much more about his biography to be sure. The topic of homosexuality and  sexuality in general, temptation, religion etc. is recurring in his books. Many of the protagonists in his novels have issues with the Roman Catholic faith. This novella could be seen as a variation on that theme.

The scene on the boat is extremely well written, and the whole novella is masterful but I can’t say I liked it. I found the story too odd. It is one of the novels the protagonists of Katherine Pancol’s novel rave about (see my post) and it is generally much liked in France.

What I know for sure is that I am still extremely tempted to read Les Thibault.

Bernard Rose’s Anna Karenina (1997)

I started the novel Anna Karenina a year ago and have still not finished it. Why ever not is hard to say. I am stuck on page 600 or so. Danielle seemed to have the same problem as did others. I just never got into it. Especially the Lewin bits slowed me down considerably even though I think he is an interesting character (and does get his share in the movie too). Having seen the movie years ago but not remembering it (only that I did not like it too much) I thought maybe watching it again might get me in the mood to finish the book.

Anna Karenina is a very sumptuous movie and I truly enjoyed the cinematography. This is a stunningly beautiful movie but…. It is flawed. Especially towards the end or rather from the stillbirth on.  I haven’t finished the book so I don’t know what Anna will become. The Anna in this movie got on my nerves (maybe due to poor acting) and I had unkind feelings when she was finally gone (Thank God, sort of). I did not get her suffering. And then there is Sean Bean as Vronsky. Sure Sophie Marceau is cute but the Anna I picture looks different. As frail as her but cooler, more classical.  To put a handsome man’s man like Sean Bean next to her did not help either. No chemistry whatsoever. I see an Anna before my inner eye but I can’t come up with an actress who would do her justice. Especially not next to Sean Bean. I would keep him as Vronsky, that’s for sure (despite his inability to get rid of his accent). All in all I felt Vronsky’s pain much more than Anna’s. That can’t be right now can it? I think Bernard Rose should have called his movie Vronsky.

Despite its flaws it is worth watching. The opulence of the costumes, palaces and houses is wonderful. I think we get a good impression of this society. Rich and frozen in rules and rituals. To be a woman and fall in love with another man than your husband was a catastrophe. It must have been horrible to be a woman in that society any which way you look at it.

Did anyone watch it and like it? Or maybe someone saw the one with Greta Garbo? Or any of the many others?

I am sorry for this very bad trailer but there wasn’t a good one to be found.

Teresa Rodriguez: The Daughters of Juárez (2007) Roberto Bolaño, Bordertown and The Story That Wants to be Told

For more than twelve years, the city of Juárez, Mexico — just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas — has been the center of a horrific crime wave against women and girls. Consisting of kidnappings, rape, mutilation, and murder, most of the atrocities have involved young, slender, and poor victims — fueling the premise that the murders are not random. As for who is behind the crimes themselves, the answer remains unknown — though many have speculated that the killers are American citizens, and others have argued that the killings have become a sort of blood sport due to the lawlessness of the city itself. And despite numerous arrests over the last ten years, the murders continue to occur, with the killers growing bolder, dumping bodies in the city itself rather than on the outskirts of town, as was initially the case, indicating a possible growing and most alarming alliance of silence and cover-up by Mexican politicians.

The subtitle of this book reads A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border. Ciudad de Juárez must be one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. For women and men alike. I heard about the serial murders on poor maquiladora (assembly factories) workers while reading a blog post on MAC’s tasteless new cosmetics series, dedicated to the dead women of Juárez. I started to investigate and found numerous films online. I read that there has been a movie starring Jennifer Lopez, Bordertown (don’t think it is very good), which is dedicated to the Juárez murders and that even Bolaño’s novel 2666 was in large parts dedicated to those crimes. I had decided to tell their stories long before I read about Bolaño and since I haven’t read him yet, there is no actual influence here. My story is progressing slowly. Too many points of view. But I can’t stop. The story wants to be told. It feels odd. While writing I am stiil researching as well. This is the first nonfiction book on those dead women I picked up. It is probably what is called a true crime book. Something I never read but the story has a hold on me.

Ciudad the Juárez is a Mexican border town that has grown from 200’000 to 2’000’000 in 40 years. Factories from across the border have opened up their doors and hire cheap workers by the thousands. Preferably young women and girls. They make 3 – 5 dollars a day in 9-14 hour shifts. Many are as young as 12 and work with forged passports. Girls are preferred as they are cheaper and said to be more accurate on the assembly lines. In the factories they have air conditioning, clean toilets, showers, and light. I mention this because when they come home, they don’t have that. Many of them live in shacks. No lighting, no electricity, no warm water and a hole in the floor instead of a toilet. These are the poorest of the poor. Many of these girls and women work double shifts or go to school as well. They disappear on their way home from work or school. One after the other. Their families are so poor, they have no telephone, no mobile phone. When the girls go missing  a manifold ordeal begins. How do you get to the police to tell them someone is missing without a car? Once you are there, they tell you to wait 72 hours and come back. And they laugh and say your daughter is a loose girl and that she will come back eventually.

This happened to thousands of families. Many of the girls were never found. The others were found dead. I spare you too many details, just let me say that they were raped, tortured and mutilated and either left dying in the desert or disposed openly near the city.  And almost none of the killers has been found. Who kills the girls of Juárez? The police? Serial murders from the US? People who do snuff movies? Frustrated Mexican men? Drug dealers? Brujos? Satanists? The dead girls look all similar. They are between 17 and 25, slender, petite, with long dark hair and very pretty faces.

I am haunted by these stories. I cannot help much but I can raise awareness. And I can tell their stories. Below you see the remembrance crosses of some of the victims and an Amnesty International clip. Women’s organizations try to help now. Tereza Rodriguez is a reporter with Univision. Her book is full of stories and full of loose ends about the possible killers. It’s interesting and horrible to read. If you would like to know more, just go to youtube and type Ciudad the Juárez. There are movies from Women’s groups and mothers who mourn their daughters. Be prepared, this might be one of the darkest stories you will ever hear. No wonder some of the families think it’s the devil commiting these crimes. It is hard to believe that one human being does this to another one.

Elizabeth Taylor: Blaming (1976)

When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.

Blaming was my first Elizabeth Taylor novel. I read a recommendation on amazon a few months back and was very interested to read it. It is Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel. She wrote it while she was dying of cancer and it was published posthumously. This got me thinking quite a bit. To think that someone who knows his own death is approaching rapidly would write such a depressing novel makes me very sad. From a stylistic point of view this is a fascinating book. She is an accomplished writer and I truly admire her art. Her descriptions of places, actions and people ring true. There is an episode in which Martha and Amy are having dinner. Amy waits for Martha to eat but she keeps on talking and puts her fork down again and again. Such an exasperating habit that I have watched many times in people. The world Elizabeth Taylor creates is a very desolate one. There is hardly any person in this book that likes any of the others. Amy is by far the worst. She seems very judgmental of people and most of the time she doesn’t even register them. Her grief is intense but more because she has lost comfort and company than because she seems to miss her husband. I got the impression that she uses everybody and found her very boring. Towards the end she seems to develop a certain consciousness of her failings. Hence the blaming. But she is not the only one who fails. They all fail each other one way or the other.

Elizabeth Taylor ‘s daughter wrote an afterword in which she said she liked this and other novels because of the sense of humour. Especially also in the depiction of the granddaughters. Now that is something that eludes me. I did not think it was funny in any way. Those two girls, especially Isobel, are the most obnoxious fictional children I have ever come across. Unfortunately they seem very realistic.

I don’t necessarily mind reading something sad but this seems such a restrained world and apart from the American Martha and the factotum Ernie, they are  uninteresting people.

Since I often read as a writer and not only as a reader I would probably read another one of her books some day.

Just a quote to illustrate why:

Back along the suburban streets with the admired privet hedges, the houses with their bowed and bayed windows, the skeleton laburnums which in spring would give such pleasure. Gardens were all in darkness now, but television lit up rooms, or shadows passed behind drawn curtains. Sometimes light sprang up in bedrooms.

Any suggestions for another of her novels? Did I pick the dreariest one?

Sjón: The Blue Fox (2008) aka Skugga-Baldur (2004) An Icelandic Novel

The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. From there we’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friðrik B. Friðriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868.

The fates of Friðrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.

Winner of the Nordic Literary Prize and nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize

Different. Very different. Mysterious. I don’t always feel like finding out more about a book but this time I did. The Blue Fox is a haunting story full of ice and snow and darkness. Historical fiction and fairytale. It takes place at the time when Iceland has finally gained independence from Denmark. Fridrik, one of the protagonists, studied in Copenhagen. He is a naturalist and a herbalist. He returns to Iceland to burn down his late parents farm and erase all of his old life. But then he finds Abba, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, who is kept in captivity. He decides to stay for her sake until the day she dies an early death. The book tells also the story of the priest Baldur Skuggason and the little blue vixen he is hunting. This is a very short novel but it is rich and multi-layered. Compellingly atmospherical and descriptive. What we don’t know unless we do a little bit of research is the fact that Skugga-Baldur, the Icelandic title, refers to a ghost being, part fox, part cat. A mysterious mythological creature. The English translator decided to name one of the forms of Skugga-Baldur. The German opted for the title Schattenfuchs, meaning shadow fox. Even though it has fairytale elements The Blue Fox is also very realistic. The writing is sparse, the information is well-chosen, we get a good impression of life in Iceland at the end of the 19th century. One thing that I found very interesting is the fact that Down’s Syndrome never existed in Iceland. Sjón deliberately chose to write about it as he was shocked when he found out that children showing signs of it in the womb are immediately aborted.

Sjón writes the lyrics for  Björk and also wrote the lyrics for the movie Dancer in the Dark. He is a well-known Icelandic poet. His affinity to poetry is very obvious.

I don’t think that I have read a lot of Icelandic literature so far apart from bits from the Edda and I have books by Halldor Laxness on my TBR pile.

Does anyone have recommendations? Any Icelandic writers you like or know of?

Rosamund Lupton: Sister (2010) A Great New British Thriller Writer

Nothing can break the bond between sisters …When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiance and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

That was a fast read. Even though this was a busy week and the novel had some 370 pages I read it in a few days. That certainly says something. I liked it a lot. The writing reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell. Should she ever choose to write a thriller, that’s what it could look like.

Sister is the story of  Tess and Beatrice, two sisters who are extremely close, even though the older one, Beatrice, lives in New York, while the younger, Tess, is still in London where she goes to an art school. When Beatrice gets the phone call from her mother saying her sister is missing she is highly alarmed and flies back to London immediately. When the sister is found dead and declared to be a suicide Bee – as her sister used to call her – is the only one who does not believe it was suicide. She is certain it was murder. And she won’t change her mind. No matter what the police, her mother or Tess’ psychiatrist say.

The story is told in part as if Beatrice was writing  a letter to her dead sister, telling her the whole story after the murderer has been found and arrested. In part she writes the letter, in part she tells the whole story to a lawyer. Consecutive flash backs. The story is also interspersed with dialogue between the sisters.  There are many red herrings as so many men who were in Tess’ life seem suspicious. The ending is quite a twist. That’s the only flaw I could find in this book. It seems a little bit artificial but then again it is not an improbable ending.

There are  many colorful characters in this novel. Art students, immigrants, doctors, scientists, policemen. The bond between those sisters is certainly the most important relationship in the book and it is very deep and moving. The story of their childhood is not an easy one which is another reason why they were so close. All through the novel Beatrice finds other people to relate to and some relationships like the one with her mother are completely transformed. Bee herself is also changed considerably. When the novel starts she is afraid of life, at the end she is ready to embrace and enjoy it.

Sister is Rosamund Lupton’s first book. The next should come out in 2011. I am already looking forward to reading it.