“Christmas is for happy people,” a moody young hotel maid observes in Arnaldur Indridason’s (Indriðason) Icelandic thriller Voices. Indridason’s equally moody sleuth agrees.
The moody sleuth, police inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, is on the scene because Santa has just been murdered—at one of Reykjavik’s leading hotels. In real life, Santa is the hotel doorman, who has been suiting up for years to entertain children at the annual Christmas party. But now he’s lying dead in his basement lair, half dressed in his Santa garb and stabbed with a knife from the hotel kitchen—in circumstances that suggest the murder had a sexual dimension.
Injecting a murder into a scene of rejoicing is a tried and true mystery-writer’s trick; the contrast makes the murder all the more shocking. The trick can certainly be overused. But when a writer as masterful as Indridason uses it, it pays off. In Voices it enhances Indridason’s persistent theme that life, even at its best, is a chancy affair. And it enriches his portrayal of characters that are already richly portrayed. Erlendur—more on his name later—is just such a character.
But first: Christmas in Iceland. I’ve been fascinated by Iceland for years. That’s why I seek out Indridason’s mysteries—and why Iceland is to feature in my 2012 summer travel plans. But even I didn’t imagine, until reading Voices, that Iceland in winter was a huge tourist draw. For one thing, because Iceland is so far north, daylight lasts only about four hours in December. Yet when Erlendur responds to the call about the dead Santa, the hotel lobby is abuzz with international travelers eager to check in and start their Icelandic adventure, while tourist busses congregate at the curb outside.
The lobby is decorated for the season with a Christmas tree, boughs of fir, and glittering decorations, and Christmas music wafts through the sound system. Tourists who have already settled in roam happily to and fro, sporting Icelandic sweaters and hiking boots. Among them are Cindy and Henry Bartlett, a cheerful young couple from Colorado who have come to Iceland “to make a dream come true and spend Christmas in the distant land of winter.” (Henry is very briefly a suspect.) The Christmas buffet, on offer every day during the holiday season, features traditional Icelandic dishes like herring, smoked lamb, and ox tongue.
The hotel manager is an unsympathetic character, rendered more so by the fact that he’s concerned about the dead man in the basement mainly because he fears the murder will hurt the hotel’s holiday business.
Erlendur’s colleagues Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli joyfully embrace the Christmas season. Elinborg is a devoted wife and mother with a particular interest in cooking. She’s a skilled and conscientious cop, but her mind is on her annual cookie baking marathon and the pork leg she is already marinating, tending it “as carefully as if it had been the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.” Erlendur telephones Sigurdur Oli at one point to find him “doing the bread”—carving patterns into the traditional wafers as he prepares for the holiday with his partner Bergthora and her family.
Erlendur, however, can hardly wait for Christmas to be over. He’s a marvelous fusion of the melancholy Scandinavian and the lonely tough-guy cop that dates all the way back to Chandler and Hammett.
Erlendur’s full name is Erlendur Sveinsson, but in Iceland people are traditionally called by their first names, even in formal situations. And their second names are not inherited family names. Rather they are taken from the immediate parent, usually the father, which is why almost all Icelandic second names end in -son or -dottir (daughter).
Erlendur has a lot to be moody about: he and his wife broke up soon after they married, and he was estranged from his children for most of their lives. He’s just now becoming reacquainted with them. His son, Sindri, is already a veteran of many stints in rehab for his drinking, and his unmarried daughter Eva Lind is fighting the urge to revert to her drugging ways after a miscarriage.
Even though the bogus joy of the hotel’s Christmas observances grates on him, Erlendur moves into a hotel room while he works on the case. It’s not that being on the scene 24-7 will help him make faster progress. It’s that nothing awaits him in the dreary flat where he lives alone with his books and a battered television set. When he thinks of what he might do to celebrate Christmas if he went home, about the best he can come up with is boiling some smoked lamb. He has scarcely any life outside his work. His only other activity is reading—and his reading focuses on one theme only: stories of people struggling against the extreme conditions of the Icelandic winter—and often losing.
We gradually learn that such stories have personal resonance. Erlendur was raised in the countryside, in a milieu that evokes Independent People, Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness’s chronicle of Iceland’s struggling sheepherders. These people’s lives changed little in the thousand years between Iceland’s founding by Norsemen in the ninth century and the modern era.
Erlendur lives with a secret sorrow. When he was a child, he and his brother accompanied their father out to look for a stray sheep and the three got separated in a sudden blizzard. His brother was lost in the snow and perished. He blames himself because he was the older son and was holding his brother’s hand until his hand became so numb that he was unaware his brother had let go and fallen behind. The episode nearly replicates an episode in Laxness’s epic and suggests that losing a child in the snow is engraved into the Icelandic psyche as the ultimate—but all too possible—tragedy.
Indridason’s skill at creating memorable characters is matched by his ability to craft plots that make his books hard to put down. Immersing oneself in Voices combines all the appeal of a journey to an exotic land with the excitement of a gripping whodunit.
To date, Indridason has produced eleven novels in the series featuring Erlendur. Voices (2003) was the fifth, but not all have been translated into English. Number three, Jar City (also known as Tainted Blood) was made into a film in Iceland and is available with English subtitles from Netflix. I recommend it highly. Not the least of its pleasures is the Icelandic setting, whose austerity and grim beauty goes so far to explain a character like Erlendur.
Peggy Ehrhart is the author of the Maxx Maxwell mysteries, featuring blues-singer sleuth Elizabeth “Maxx” Maxwell. Visit Peggy on the web at www.PeggyEhrhart.com.