Iceland’s unofficial ‘King of Crime’, Arnaldur Indriðason, has earned himself countless fans the world over with his Detective Erlendur suspense series that currently numbers 12 books.
Foreign readers eagerly wait for the stories of Erlendur’s investigations to be translated into their native languages—the latest of Arnaldur’s novels to be published in English is Black Skies (originally Svörtuloft; 2009), hitting the market this July.
Even though Black Skies is part of the Detective Erlendur series, the star of the show is absent. Happening at the same time as Outrage (2008), Erlendur is still on vacation in East Iceland and no one has heard from him in a long time.
In the meantime, his two associates, Elínborg—who was the main character in Outrage—and Sigurður Óli, are responsible for solving the crimes that occur in Reykjavík.
Much to my dismay, in Black Skies, the focus is on Sigurður Óli, who has so far been on the sidelines.
I was disappointed with Arnaldur giving Elínborg the stage in the previous book. I didn’t find her character interesting enough to carry the story and suspected the same would be the case with Sigurður Óli.
While Elínborg is busy trying to find out who slit the throat of the young victim in Outrage, he is responsible for investigating a brutal assault of a woman in her home in Reykjavík.
Yet it is not the case that Sigurður Óli is working on—and gets entangled in—that is in the spotlight, but rather Sigurður Óli’s character.
The only child of a divorced couple, Sigurður Óli is accused by his ex-girlfriend of being cold and distant and too much like his mother.
Readers learn more about the detective’s daily routines, background, friends and family, why his relationship failed and how the events occurring in Black Skies change his perspective and mature him.
To me, these passages, which take up most of the book, read like fillers and I caught myself yawning during descriptions of what Sigurður Óli has for breakfast and watches on television.
Eventually, I started skipping the boring pages to get to the core of the matter: the crime.
There is one culprit’s story in particular that strikes a chord with Sigurður Óli, that of a drunk whose petty crimes have made him familiar to the police.
Failing to contact Erlendur, the man places his faith in Sigurður Óli. He obviously has something important to tell him but doesn’t know how to go about it.
Although the drunk’s tale—which picks up on a loose thread in Arnaldur’s Arctic Chill (2005)—is not the main focus of the story, I found it to be the most interesting aspect of the book.
Delving into the past, questioning why the man ended up the way he is and why he does the things he does, readers—and Sigurður Óli—feel for the innocent and helpless boy the drunk once was. We understand that revenge must be the prevailing thought in his disturbed mind.
Only towards the end of the book, the story of the woman who was attacked gathers more weight and readers discover, along with the detective, that there may be more to it than it originally seemed.
The investigation leads Sigurður Óli to scrutinize the dubious affairs of corrupt bankers who, like so many others in the pre-crisis boom years, became fixated on earning as much money as possible—at any cost.
Now this is where the story finally gets interesting, some 200 pages into the book, and I rediscovered the old Arnaldur suspense magic I first came across in Silence of the Grave that kept me glued to the pages.
Tightly woven plots are what the author should focus on, in my opinion, and leave the detectives on the sidelines, where they belong.
I honestly don’t care about their domestic situations, love lives and inner conflicts; I want to read about the cases they’re solving.
I worry that Arnaldur will continue to move away from the suspense element of his detective novels and end up turning them into dramas.
My suspicion was confirmed when I read Furðustrandir (2010), which has yet to be published in English, which is more of a drama than a crime story.
However, in Furðustrandir, Detective Erlendur is back, and at least I find his character to be more interesting than that of his associates.
As for Black Skies, even though it was largely a disappointment, haunting secrets from the past and business ventures dominated by greed, proved once again that Arnaldur is a master plotter.
I just wish he would cut out the drama.
Black Skies is available on Amazon.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir