Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb, is the eighth in the Inspector Erlandur procedural series set in Iceland (available September 17, 2013).
Sigurdur Óli is a policeman with a lot of problems. The personal ones pile up with a bleakness and harshness which easily match the tough Icelandic backdrop of Arnaldur Indridason’s latest thriller.
Looking discontentedly around the group, he wondered if he had achieved the least of all of them since leaving school. It was the kind of thought that preyed on him whenever he bothered to attend these reunions. The gathering included other lawyers like Guffi, as well as engineers, two vicars, three doctors who had completed lengthy training as specialists, and even an author. Sigurdur Óli had never read any of his stuff but they made a fuss of him in literary circles for his distinctive style that bordered on the ‘irrational’, in the jargon of the latest pseudo-intellectual school of criticism. When Sigurdur Óli compared himself to his former classmates–his life in the force, the sort of investigations he was involved in, his colleagues Erlendur and Elínborg, and all the human dross he was forced to deal with every day–he could find little reason to be cheerful.
Vengeance hangs heavy in the air as a man with demons stalks his intended victim.
Then he set the bottle down and picked up the mask. Only the finest materials had been used: thick pigskin, and seams double stitched with waxed sailmaking twine. He had cut out a round hole in the forehead to accommodate the galvanised-iron spike, then sewn a thick rim around it so that the spike would stand up unsupported. The sides of the mask had slits for a broad leather strap which could be tied tightly round the back of the head. There were also slits for the eyes and mouth…
He took another swig of the spirit, trying not to let the old sod’s whimpering get to him.
Nasty and simple. The book has some strong elements, particularly some of the language which made my toes curl, which was a surprise, as they don’t curl easily. Óli attends a reunion, which is innocent enough, to introduce us to the life of a Reykjavik police officer. It is a gathering where there is a diverse range of people.
“…one of the two vicars in the group, he was descended from priests on both sides of the family and had never harboured any other ambition than to serve the Lord not that he was the sanctimonious type; quite the opposite: he liked a drink, had an eye for the ladies and was already on his second marriage.”
The week takes a different turn when he meets with Patrekur who makes his move on his old friend, Óli. It is not only that he is is a friend but a policeman and uniquely positioned to offer a particular type of assistance to Patrekur.
“Are you familiar with the term ‘swinging’?” Patrekur asked now.
“No, what, you mean dancing?”
Patrekur’s lips twitched. “If only.”
Óli would have been best to leave it at that but then, of course, we wouldn’t have this journey which takes us into quite a few different sections of Icelandic society, some respectable, like the police and the bankers and the housewives and the plumbers and some not so, like the angry, strong arm debt collectors, surly young offenders with range of expletives to make one of the vicars at the party, blush. Yes, he would have been well advised to leave it all alone, but he doesn’t.
Patrekur has got himself into some bother, with the particular taste for “swinging” he shares with his wife. Photographs have been presented by a blackmailer and they are going to be plastered all over the internet, unless some proper money is produced for their exchange. Óli goes to pay the woman, who Patrekur says is attempting to blackmail him and his wife, a visit. He is intending to talk to her, find out what’s what, and then suggest that it is a road she and her husband probably don’t want to go down. The motive for the blackmail would appear to be that of money. The opportunity has arisen as Patrekur’s wife is connected politically, and photos of sexual aerobics with people they are not actually married to will get a real scandal going, even in this day and age.
Óli sees it simply enough. He will approach her, off the record, and she will most likely see sense and the whole affair will come quietly and discreetly to an end and the favour to his friend will have been completed. Trouble is when he gets there, it turns out he is the second person to arrive. The first has already introduced the hapless would be blackmailer to the wrong end of a baseball bat. She is not dead but she is not doing well either. The assailant is still there and he tries to add Óli to his list of conquests. Luckily for the Icelandic policeman, he manages to dodge the worst of the intended strike and then gives chase to the attacker, who manages to get away.
When Óli’s fellow police officers turn up, he, very unwisely, decides not to tell them the real reason he was there. It gets nastier from there on in. The woman dies in hospital, as the story unfolds to embrace child abusers, pornographers, drug dealers with a foot in both Iceland and England and men seeking revenge, twisted and malformed with hate.
In amongst this, Óli is dealing with the tension between him and his recently separated partner, Bergthora. They have been unable to have children, which seems to not have helped the general rift which settled into their relationship. Óli is hopeful they be able to get back together, but his aims in this direction are not helped when he finds out she is seeing someone else. Óli’s father needs to have a prostrate operation and tells Óli that he must get checked out, too. The question is when? The case is taking twists and turns which are not leaving much time for taking care of his personal health.
A group of bankers lose one of their number on a trip to the great outdoors. Turns out the dead woman was known to them, which leads Óli on a trail far more sinister and malevolent by the page. The writing is tense, sparse and concise. It has to be when some of the place names are Kringlumyrarbraut.
In spite of the countless death threats he had received, the boy held nothing back. It turned out that like so many other members of Reykjavik’s benighted underworld Thorarinn had a nickname, that explained a lot to Sigurdur Óli. Toggi ‘Sprint’.
In the midst of this excellent thriller is also a vigilante policeman, who’s tired of seeing criminals walking away unpunished and takes the law into his own hands. It is not a pretty picture of Iceland painted byIndridason, nor is it an easy book to read, but then I think Iceland and its people do not exactly do pretty or easy. They like their stories like their meat: fresh.
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.