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.

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?