Nordic Noir Author Arnaldur Indriðason Awarded

Best-selling Nordic noir author Arnaldur Indriðason was awarded the Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize yesterday. The award is given annually on November 16, Icelandic Language Day, to individuals whose work has helped the Icelandic language flourish through writing, teaching, or scholarship. Arnaldur’s books have sold over 14 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 40 languages.

Arnaldur is a prolific writer whose crime fiction books are popular in Iceland as well as abroad. In 2006, his novel Jar City was made into a film directed by Baltasar Kormákur. On receiving the award yesterday, Arnaldur stated that he was accepting it on behalf of all crime fiction writers in Iceland. “I believe the award is also a recognition of the branch of literature of which I have been a representative for about a quarter of a century and has flourished in our literary flora in recent years,” he stated.

Podcast host Vera Illugadóttir also received special recognition at the ceremony. Vera is the creator of the Icelandic-language podcast series Í ljósi sögunnar, produced by RÚV. The podcast presents global history in a gripping, narrative format, often telling of historic events that have rarely been written about in Icelandic.

Arnaldur Turns to History, Not Crime, This Christmas

World-famous author Arnaldur Indriðason will not be putting out a new crime novel during this year’s jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, mbl.is reports. Arnaldur has released a new book every November 1st for the last 24 years, and his crime novels—whether they star Detectives Erlendur, Konráð, or Flovent and Thorson—are a particularly popular part of the season. This year, however, Arnaldur is trying something new and releasing a work of historical fiction.

Many of Arnaldur’s novels are set in the past, but on top of being distinctly un-criminal in nature, his new book, Sigurverkið (a title which can mean both ‘Winning Entry’ and ‘Watchworks’) moves to an entirely new era. It takes place in the southern part of the Westfjords in Iceland and Copenhagen, Denmark during the 18th century and tells the story of Jón Sívertsen, an Icelandic watchmaker working in a Danish palace to restore magnificent, old clock. One day, the King himself, Christian VII, comes into the Jón’s workshop. Although still king in name, Christian, who suffers from mental illness, has been sidelined by his son and court. In the course of their conversation, Jón tells Christian about his father and foster mother, who were killed at the behest of the previous monarch.

In his interview with Morgunblaðið, Arnaldur said that the idea for the story “came to me very suddenly. I got the idea for the book last summer and immediately sat down to write and finished it in about six months.” The book takes inspiration from real people and events, although Arnaldur has combined and refigured details to suit his narrative. And as the era is not one that he’s written before, he enlisted the assistance of a historian while writing. “It was a lot of fun for me to write about the 18th century because it is, of course, a new arena for me as an author, but it’s also an interesting possibly new arena for contemporary Icelandic literature.”

Arnaldur says that he wants to continue to surprise himself as a writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be writing a lot more historical fiction from here on out. He’s not sure what the future holds on that count but will be making a return to crime fiction soon. “Konráð, the rather skewed protagonist of my last books, will be in full swing next Christmas,” he said. “That I can I promise.”

Detective Erlendur Strikes Back

I’ve been a fan of Arnaldur Indriðason’s crime writing ever since falling for the cleverly woven plot in Silence of the Grave (2001) over a decade ago, and I still consider it the best book in his Detective Erlendur series.

However, through the years, with each new book in the series also being an independent novel, Erlendur’s character, his family and ghosts from the past were introduced again and again, taking away from the crime he was solving and making me grow tired of the quirky and grumpy detective with the mysterious past. And what’s more, I sensed that the author had also grown tired of him.

Therefore, I was relieved at first when I learned that Erlendur was absent in the two crime novels preceding Strange ShoresOutrage (2008) and Black Skies (2009), with his assistants taking the lead instead.

However, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment because neither of the two were strong or interesting enough characters to drive the plot.

However, in Strange Shores Erlendur returns with a vengeance.

The story actually happens at the same time as the two books preceding it. Set in the East Fjords where Erlendur goes on vacation after the trials he faced while solving the crime in Hypothermia (2007)—Arnaldur’s best book since Silence of the Grave—it traces his footsteps until he goes missing, which regularly comes up in Outrage and Black Skies.

Fans of the series know that Erlendur hails from East Iceland. His family moved away from the region while Erlendur was in his pre-teens after his little brother Bergur was forever lost in a blizzard, an event which made Erlendur the flawed character he is.

Erlendur has since regularly returned to the abandoned farm where his family once lived, hiking the mountain Harðskafi, searching for his brother’s remains.

Inevitably, Erlendur also gets tangled up in another old mystery, about a young woman called Matthildur who disappeared while hiking across a mountain pass in a snowstorm decades earlier.

As her body was never found, all sorts of theories and mysteries had arisen but at the time the story is set, hardly anyone remembers Matthildur anymore.

This makes Erlendur even more eager to stir up hidden emotions and discover dirty secrets, as determined to reveal Matthildur’s fate and what became of her body as that of his brother.

As Erlendur’s investigation into Matthildur’s case progresses, so does that into the fate of his brother. For the very first time in the series, this part of the recurring plot is actually going somewhere. We learn more about Erlendur’s past and childhood years, which is very refreshing.

To create an interesting background for the story, it is set during the boom years before the financial crash in 2008. In East Iceland the giant dam at Kárahnjúkar and the Alcoa aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður are being built and, on a side note, the story includes the locals’ reaction to the project.

Moreover, the landscape of the East Fjords, the high mountains, rough seas and harsh winter weather, are painted vividly with the author’s words, while bits of history from the area, such as the rescue of British soldiers who were about to die of exposure in a snowstorm in 1942, add further layers to it.

Arnaldur has a knack for creating deep and meaningful characters and is a master of describing human emotion. Strange Shores certainly does these skills of his justice and, best of all—after years of standstill—we finally get to know Erlendur’s feelings better.

However, as thrilling as it is, the plot drags on a little too long. The story could have been condensed. It is also regularly broken up with dreamlike accounts, which I assume originate from the main character while in distress. They don’t really add much until the very end as they are all similar and don’t seem to lead anywhere.

To me, Strange Shores was certainly a more exciting read than the two books preceding it—fans of the Detective Erlendur series will not be disappointed—and Matthildur’s story alone was interesting enough to convince me to keep reading.

I don’t mean to give anything away, but while Arnaldur rekindled my interest in Erlendur, I was left a bit baffled with how his story eventually trailed off.

And I’m honestly a bit concerned about the detective’s fate as the following books, Einvígið (2011) and Reykjavíkurnætur (2012), are ‘blasts from the past’ and his latest novel Skuggasund (2013) described as potential for a new detective series.

While I agree that it may be time to put the old detective to rest, his story should be concluded in such a way that all loose ends have been tied and readers can accept his destiny. However, I don’t doubt that Arnaldur has many more stories in store for us.

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Originally published by Vaka-Helgafell as Furðustrandir in 2010, Strange Shores is now widely available on the English-language literature market, including amazon.com.

Enough Drama! Black Skies

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.

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Black Skies is available on Amazon.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

River of Evil Running Through Little Iceland

As a first time reader of Arnaldur Indridason, and somewhat prejudiced in my disposition to crime novels, I was not quite sure what to expect from Outrage.

However, Indridason managed to catch me by surprise; the combination of an intricate plot, the author’s own presence in the novel, and an understanding of Icelandic reality, both its cons and pros, compelled me to finish the novel.

Outrage is the ninth book in the Detective Erlendur series and this time the protagonist is Elínborg, a seasoned detective who is also a mother and a wife. She investigates a brutal murder and during the investigation battles with the hidden ugliness of human nature visible only to few as well as her own guilt pertaining to parental neglect.

One of my arguments against writing crime novels set in Iceland has been that there is simply no basis to believe such brutality occurs within the confinements of our little island; that the writing itself is almost wishful thinking, a way to place Reykjavík on a platform with American cities where detectives do investigate brutal murders. However, Indridason proved me wrong in Outrage, starting with the plot.

The plot is sparked by a simple event, a murder of a young man living in Reykjavík city. The plot explores the initial impressions of Elínborg, to more questionable details of lifestyle choices leading to a full exposure of a much darker world, so far from our imagination yet perhaps too easy to stumble into.

The notions of guilt and innocence enter into a battle zone where the undeserving experience guilt and the question of rightful punishment for the deserving are ever-present in the characters and their conflictions.

Then there’s the author’s presence in the novel. Like E.M. Forster in Howards End, a slight voice belonging to the author climbs to the surface occasionally revealing social criticism of the Icelandic legal system, a voice seemingly belonging to a character but one that seems to possess them for a second and say the unspoken in straightforward manner. However, the intervention of the author’s voice is not necessary to the storyline as the story itself leaves the reader fatigued by the brutality of human action against fellow human beings.

Indridason has been published in several languages and it is perhaps the sense of Iceland and the Icelandic reality that intrigues foreign readership to his work.

He captures the intricate details of the Icelandic way of life and of the citizens in Europe’s northernmost capital city, with a glimpse into smaller communities that seem so strange to a city dweller, yet to someone whose childhood was spent in such a place, the familiarity of people’s interaction is prevailing. The story captures the sense of invisible borders between the citizens of this island in the North yet does not discriminate.

The protagonist Elínborg and her thoughts and investigative work are revealed to the reader but little is said about Sigurdur Óli, a disgruntled police officer whose fuse is short, much to Elínborg’s dislike. The presence of Elínborg’s family serves as her shelter from the world yet not a shelter from her inner life.

The storyline is simple yet invites the reader to catch a glimpse of a subplot involving the invisible character Erlendur, a mild introduction to a mystery to be resolved in a later book perhaps.

Outrage is not a masterpiece but succeeds where many crime novels fail: to provoke the reader and surprise with an unforeseen solution to the end.

The original title of OutrageMyrká or “Dark River” is certainly appropriate for the evil running through the plot.

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Published by Vaka-Helgafell Publishing House in 2008, the book is available at www.amazon.com and most Icelandic bookstores.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir