Thursday, June 1, 2017

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS + INTO OBLIVION – a twofer by Arnaldur Indridason

Yowyow. Say that, and you're speaking Icelandic. I learned it from Ransy, a photographer at the newspaper we worked at. I overheard her on the phone to a relative in (or from) Iceland. She was speaking an unfamiliar tongue. I asked and she explained after hanging up. She'd been saying yowyow a lot during the conversation. I asked her what it meant. “Yes?” she said. “Yowyow,” I said again. “What does yowyow mean?” “Yes,” she said again. “Yes? Yowyow means yes in Icelandic?” She laughed. “Yes, it means yes.
Remembering the charm of this little language lesson might explain my hesitation before deciding to try one of Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlendur mystery novels. For one, I suspected my tongue might get tangled in what's left of my molars asking a librarian to put anything by one of Iceland's most popular authors on hold for me. Overriding this potential nightmare was my difficulty in assuming I could accept at all seriously a fictional police officer saying yowyow in any but the most comically painful circumstances.
I needn't have worried about the yowyow, although I did get a few laughs from the little quirks in Victoria Cribbs's translation, such as “drink-driving'” and “He was in his shirtsleeves, his flies were undone...” On second thought, I suppose more than one fly might have to be negotiated with the layered clothing Icelanders presumably wear during that arctic rim country's sub-zero, blizzardy winters. Then again, who but the keenest-eyed of police inspectors in any climate might notice such lapses in sartorial propriety beyond the outer layer? Inspector Erlendur perhaps? Well, yowyow!

Not that Erlendur (Sveinsson--Icelanders refer to each other by first names) finds this evidence to be of even the scantiest value in Reykjavik Nights, which leads me to pin the blame for such excessive acuity on Ms. Cribbs—with a wink from Sigmund Freud, of course. Nor do “flies” play any role in its sequel, Into Oblivion. Loopy translations aside, I read both books back-to-back, entranced, after the bracing slap of awareness I no longer had to try to say “Arnaldur Indridason” to any of our savvy, though deeply empathic, librarians. I found the Kindle versions.
I owe my vicarious Icelandic trips to an enthusiastic blurb by novelist/crime writer Patti Abbott, founding host of the Friday's Forgotten Books weekly blog feature (hosted this week by Todd Mason), to which I and dozens of others contribute. “Indridason is a master at plot, creating memorable characters, and evoking Iceland during World War II and today,” Patti writes. “His detective has a compelling personal life, is likable and gets the job done.”
I looked over the list of fourteen Inspector Erlendur novels, and lucked out when I picked Reykjavik Nights, one of the more recent in the series but a prequel to those in which Erlendur is a bona fide detective. In this one he's still a junior cop, a patrolman, who uses his own time to investigate a disappearance and a drowning. His diligence impresses one of the department's longest-serving detectives, Marion, who tells Erlendur, “Get in touch with me if you’re interested in doing more of this kind of sleuthing.” It comes near the conclusion of Reykjavik Nights.
By now I am hooked, and identify among the other thirteen books the succeeding prequel, Into Oblivion, the first in the series with Erlendur as a detective. I soon learn Erlendur has been a detective only two years after waiting several years before taking Marion up on his offer. I also learn Erlendur has a five-year-old daughter. The mother is never identified, but presumably is Halldóra, his girlfriend in Reykjavik Nights. The girl appears briefly in a single touching scene, with Erlendur seeing her on a playground:
Erlendur hunched his shoulders against the cold and headed back to his car, thinking about the little girl and himself and what a mess he had made of things. One day he hoped he would have a chance to explain to his daughter who he was and why he’d had to leave.
Of course I must read the other dozen novels to find out, too. But don't expect me to reveal it here, in another Friday's Forgotten Books report. Nuh uh. You'll have to find it out on your own. And if you get there ahead of me you might also get to peer deeper into the darkness that's clouded Erlendur's heart from the childhood loss of his brother in a blizzard:
Bergur had been only eight years old when he disappeared in a blizzard and was never found. The incident had set an indelible mark on Erlendur’s soul. He had been out there with Bergur but lost hold of his hand, and later had been rescued, more dead than alive, from a snowdrift. Ever since then he had been wrestling with the question of why Bergur should have suffered such a cruel fate while he himself was spared.
So Patti Abbott is spot-on when she mentions Erlendur's “compelling personal life,” which, apart from his professional obligations, drives him in his investigations. In both novels the fate of a person gone missing grabs and holds his interest in addition to the mystery of an unnatural death. His obsession extends to collecting accounts of morbid deaths in the unforgiving landscape and climate of Iceland, a tiny country of fewer than 340,000 citizens living on only 40,000 square miles:

When he was in his teens, and bored with life in the city, he had taken to browsing in antiquarian bookshops. One day he had chanced upon a series of volumes recently acquired from a house clearance, a collection of true stories about people going missing or getting lost on their travels in Iceland. Some had survived to tell of their own ordeals, but there were also second-hand accounts of incredible feats of endurance or of tragic surrender to the forces of nature. Erlendur had not realized that such tales existed in print. He devoured the entire series and ever since then he had been collecting books, and anything else he could find, about human suffering in shipwrecks, avalanches or on the old roads that crossed the Icelandic wilderness.
Author Indridason (glad I don't have to read this out loud) does not give us much to go on as to Erlendur's physical appearance, leaving it up to our imaginations. One scene in Reykjavik Nights gives us a clue, noting that he's “powerfully built” and had done some boxing—this just before he defends himself by decking his attacker with two blows to the gut. I should note here that Icelandic police do not carry firearms. In Into Oblivion, an elderly woman wonders why he's so intent on digging into past sadness. “‘You’re very serious,’ she said, ‘for such a young man. Why are you…why are you doing this?’ Erlendur had no answer ready. Why was he doing this? Why couldn’t he leave well alone? Why did he have to reopen old wounds and wallow in grief and loss? ‘Is it something to do with those mournful eyes of yours?’ she asked. ‘Has anyone ever told you? What beautiful eyes you’ve got?’"

I enjoyed both novels, although in part for different reasons. While the principal characters and Iceland's uniqueness provide continuity, Reykjavik Nights is set in summer, during the months of “midnight sun.” The nights, Erlendur muses, reflecting on his night shift as a patrolman, were “so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate.” Into Oblivion takes place in the harsh winter, with news accounts of a couple of men missing in “a ferocious blizzard” haunting Erlendur throughout the novel. In this one he's paired with Marion, a librarian before he joined the police force. Marion, serving as mentor/partner--almost a father figure to Erlendur--suffers his own haunted past that has nothing to do with shushing library patrons or fining them for overdue books.
The suspense is more immediate in Into Oblivion, with scenes that kept me on the edge of my recliner (assuming that's even possible) and clicking Kindle pages long past my usual bedtime. If you're thinking I'm going to try to be clever and get yowyow in one more time before closing out this report, trust me, I won't.

[Note: the aforementioned Patti Abbott is on vacation this week, but her loyal, diligent backup blogger, Todd Mason, has once again picked up the weight for Friday's Forgotten Books.]


  1. I read the first two in the series and really liked them a lot - but stalled in the wake of a surfei of 'nordic noir' books I was reading at the time. I clearly shoudl go back! Thanks Matt.

    1. Ordinarily I avoid noir, Sergio. Maybe my dollop of Nordic blood is overriding that inclination.

  2. I have read the first novel in the series, Jar City. I liked it although not to the extent that you liked these two later books. I plan to read more of the series.

    1. I find it odd that he would do three prequels long after the series was underway. I'm glad I stumbled on Reyjavik Nights as the first one, which I think is the first one chronologically.

  3. I may have read one of the books in this series ages ago when I was just learning about nordic noir and its practitioners. Or I may have not. The memory is shot lately. I know I read a few ice cold thrillers at some point. At any rate, these sound good. When next I'm in a mood for snow and ice and grim imaginings, I will check this author out. Thanks, Mathew.

    1. You are most welcome, Yvette. Pretty sure (unless it's frostbite) I'm addicted now to this series.