Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason is a prequel set in the 1960s about the up-and-coming Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson (available April 21,2015).
The beat on the streets in Reykjavik is busy: traffic accidents, theft, domestic violence, contraband … And an unexplained death.
When a tramp he met regularly on the night shift is found drowned in a ditch, no one seems to care. But his fate haunts Erlendur and drags him inexorably into the strange and dark underworld of the city.
There was a green anorak in the water. When prodded, it stirred, turned a slow half circle and sank from view. The boys fished at it with their poles until it floated up to the surface again, then recoiled in horror when they saw what lay beneath.
The three friends lived on Hvassaleiti, in the residential blocks lined up along busy Miklabraut all the way down to the expanse of waste-ground known as Kringlumýri. To the north the waste-ground was overgrown with nettles and angelica; to the south lay a large area of open diggings, deep gashes in the earth, where the inhabitants of Reykjavík had excavated peat by the ton to heat their houses during the First World War when fuel was in short supply. They had drained and laid tracks across the marshy ground before embarking on the largest scale peat extraction in the history of the city. Hundreds of men had been employed in cutting, drying and transporting it to the city in wagons.
After the war, when imports of coal and oil resumed, the abandoned workings gradually filled with brown groundwater and remained like that for many years. Later, in the fifties and sixties, when the city expanded to the east and new suburbs rose on Hvassaleiti and Stóragerdi, the area became a playground for the local children, who built rafts to sail on the largest ponds and wore cycle tracks up and down the various hills and mounds. When the temperature dropped in winter, the icy pools came into their own as skating rinks.
The three boys had knocked up a new raft, using off-cuts of timber from a nearby building site. It consisted of two sturdy crossbars, some sheets of polystyrene and a serviceable platform made of planks from a concrete mould. They propelled it with long poles, which they inserted into the murky water and used to push off from the bottom, since the pool wasn’t very deep. Although they wore rubber boots and did their best to keep dry, it was not uncommon for kids to fall in. Then they would return home with their knees trembling from the cold and at the thought of yet another telling-off – or worse – for turning up like drowned rats again.
They punted along gingerly in the direction of the Kringlumýri road, trying not to rock the raft in case it shipped water or sent them overboard. There was quite a knack to this: like tightrope walking, it required cooperation, skill, and not least a cool head. The boys took their time to find their balance before finally daring to push off from shore, aware that if they stood too close together on one side they risked capsizing.
In the event, the maiden voyage exceeded expectations. They were pleased with their new craft, which slipped along easily, and they made several trips back and forth across the deepest part of the pond. The rumble of traffic reached them from Miklabraut in the north, while the view to the south was dominated by the geothermal-heating pipeline that supplied hot water to the tanks on top of Öskjuhlíd hill. This was another of their playgrounds, where they sometimes came across small, hard balls the size of hens’ eggs. They had puzzled over these until one of their fathers explained that they were golf balls. People must have been practising on the waste-ground by the pipeline, he said, adding that Reykjavík’s golf course had once been located on the eastern side of Öskjuhlíd, not far from Kringlumýri. In those days the area had been known as Golfskálatjörn or ‘Clubhouse Pond’, though he thought it unlikely the balls had been lying there that long.
They were making good headway when the raft encountered an obstacle. One corner dipped into the dark water, and they came to a standstill. The boys quickly restored the equilibrium by shifting to the opposite side, and gradually the platform rose up again, though not all the way. It must have caught on something heavy. On previous excursions they had found a variety of junk in the brown depths; rubbish that had been thrown into the pits, such as the broken bicycle that jutted up in one spot. Some of this junk, like the polystyrene, had come in handy for raft building, but this hindrance, whatever it was, seemed more immovable. They guessed it must have snagged on a nail sticking out of one of the crossbars.
Warily, they tried pushing backwards, and discovered that it took all their strength to move their vessel. The debris dragged along with them a short way, then the raft suddenly broke free, its corner shooting up out of the water, almost causing them to overbalance. They managed to steady it again, thanking their lucky stars that they hadn’t got drenched, then turned their attention to the thing that had been pulled up to the surface.
‘What is it?’ asked one, poking cautiously with his pole.
‘Is it a bag?’ asked his friend.
‘No, it’s an anorak,’ said the third.
The first boy prodded harder, jabbing the object until finally it moved. It sank from view and they fished around until it floated up again. Then, by slow degrees it turned over, and from under the anorak a man’s head appeared, white and bloodless, with colourless strands of hair. It was the most gruesome sight they had ever seen. One of the boys let out a yell and tumbled backwards into the water. At that, the precarious equilibrium was lost and before they knew it all three had fallen overboard, and they waded shrieking to the shore.
They stood there for a moment, wet and shivering, gaping at the green anorak and the side of the face that was exposed above the water, then turned and fled as fast as their legs would carry them.
A report came over the radio about a disturbance at a house in the Bústadir district and they accelerated onto Miklabraut eastbound, then crossed Háaleiti and took Grensásvegur south. It was long gone three in the morning and there was little traffic on the roads, though they passed two taxis heading for the suburbs, before almost colliding with another vehicle which crept up from Fossvogur and into their path at the Bústadavegur junction. The middle-aged man at the wheel had apparently failed to notice how fast the police van was travelling and had judged it safe to pull out.
‘Is he crazy?’ shouted Erlendur as he swerved violently round the vehicle before continuing along the road.
‘Should we pull him over?’ asked Marteinn from the back seat.
‘Leave him,’ said Gardar.
Glancing in the rear-view mirror, Erlendur saw that the car was now crawling west along Bústadavegur.
Gardar and Marteinn were law students temping for the summer. Erlendur quite enjoyed working with them. Both had Beatles haircuts, fringes flopping over their eyes, and large sideburns. At present the three of them were riding in a lumbering police van, a black-and-white Chevrolet, slow but reliable, equipped with a small holding cage for prisoners in the back. They hadn’t bothered to turn on the siren or the flashing lights, which was probably why they’d nearly collided with the car, but they didn’t need to for a domestic incident in the early hours. Sometimes Gardar liked to activate the whole system and drive like a maniac, though, just for the hell of it.
They parked outside the house, put on their white caps and climbed out into the light summer night. Though overcast and drizzling, it was mild. There had been a fair amount of drunkenness in town, but nothing serious until now. Earlier they had stopped a motorist on suspicion of drink-driving and taken him for a blood test. After that they had been summoned to a brawl outside a crowded nightclub, followed by another at a rundown house in the west end, where five men of assorted ages, a ship’s crew from out of town, rented a couple of rooms. A shouting match with their neighbours had ended in blows, in the course of which one of them had pulled a knife and managed to stab another man in the arm before being overpowered. When Erlendur and company arrived to put an end to the fight the man was so enraged he was foaming at the mouth, so they cuffed him and took him to cool off in the detention cells at Hverfisgata. The others had sobered up with the arrival of the police and gave conflicting accounts of how it had all started.
They rang the doorbell of the terraced house. There was no sign of any disturbance, yet according to the police radio a neighbour had rung in to report a noisy row at this address. They knocked on the door, tried the bell again, then conferred. Erlendur wanted to force an entry but was overruled by the two law students. The neighbour was nowhere to be seen.
While they were arguing, the door abruptly opened and a man in his early forties appeared. He was in his shirtsleeves, his flies were undone and his braces were dangling from his waistband. He had his hands in his pockets.
‘What’s all this about?’ he asked, surveying them each in turn, apparently surprised to receive a visit from the police. They couldn’t smell alcohol on his breath, but neither, it seemed, had they got him out of bed.
‘We’ve received a complaint about noise at this address,’ said Gardar.
‘Noise?’ repeated the man, squinting at them. ‘There’s no noise here. What … who’s been complaining? You mean someone called the police?’
‘Do you mind if we come in a minute?’ asked Erlendur.
‘In?’ echoed the man. ‘In here? Someone’s been having you on, boys. You shouldn’t fall for prank calls.’
‘Is your wife up?’ asked Erlendur.
‘My wife? She’s out of town. Staying at a summer cottage with friends. I don’t see … There must be some mistake.’
‘Perhaps we were given the wrong address,’ suggested Gardar, glancing at Erlendur and Marteinn. ‘We’d better check with the station.’
‘Excuse us,’ said Marteinn.
‘No problem, boys. Sorry there’s been a mix-up but I’m alone in the house. Have a good night.’
Gardar and Marteinn headed back to the van with Erlendur following in their wake. They climbed in and Marteinn radioed the station, only to receive confirmation that they had the right address.
‘But there’s nothing going on here,’ said Gardar.
‘Hang on a minute.’ Erlendur got out of the van. ‘There’s something odd about this.’
‘What are you going to do?’ asked Marteinn.
Erlendur retraced his steps and knocked on the door. After a short interval the man opened it again.
‘Could I use your toilet?’ asked Erlendur.
‘Just quickly,’ said Erlendur. ‘I won’t be a minute.’
‘I’m sorry, it’s … I can’t…’
‘Can I see your hands?’
‘What? My hands?’
‘Yes, your hands.’ Erlendur gave the door a determined shove, forcing the man to retreat before him into the house.
Barging in after him, Erlendur threw a quick glance into the kitchen, opened the door to the toilet opposite it, then dashed into the passage, opening more doors and calling out. After a brief protest at this extraordinary behaviour, the man stood, passive, in the hall. Erlendur strode back past him into the sitting room, and there he found a woman lying motionless on the floor. The room was a shambles – overturned chairs, fallen lamps, an ashtray stand on its side, curtains ripped from their rails. He ran to the woman and stooped over her. She was unconscious, one eye had sunk into her face, her lips were split and blood was oozing from a cut on her head. She appeared to have knocked herself out on the stand as she fell. Her dress was rucked up over her hips and from the old bruise on her thigh he deduced that the violence had not begun this evening.
‘Call an ambulance,’ he bellowed to Gardar and Marteinn, who had materialised in the doorway. ‘How long has she been lying here?’ he demanded of the man, who was still standing, immobile, in the hall.
‘Is she dead?’
‘She could well be.’ Erlendur did not dare touch the woman. She had a serious head wound and the ambulance men would know what to do before moving her. He grabbed the torn-down curtains and spread them over her, before ordering Marteinn to handcuff the husband and take him out to the van. The man no longer saw any reason to keep his hands in his pockets. His knuckles were bleeding from the assault.
‘Do you have any children?’ asked Erlendur.
‘Two boys. They’re in the country.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘I didn’t do it deliberately,’ the man said as he was cuffed and led out. ‘I don’t know … I didn’t mean to go for her like that. She … I didn’t mean to … She … I was going to ring you. She fell against the ashtray stand and didn’t answer and I thought maybe…’
His words dried up. The woman emitted a faint moan.
‘Can you hear me?’ Erlendur whispered, but she did not respond.
The neighbour who had called the police, a man in his early thirties, was now outside talking to Gardar. Erlendur joined them. The neighbour was saying that he and his wife had heard rows from time to time but nothing as bad as tonight.
‘Has it been going on long?’
‘I really couldn’t say. We’ve only lived here just over a year and it … like I said, you sometimes hear shouting and stuff being thrown around. It makes us very uncomfortable because we don’t know what to do. It’s not as though we really know them, even though we’re neighbours.’
The wailing of sirens grew louder and they saw an ambulance turn into the road and approach the house. It was followed by a second patrol car. The other neighbours, woken by the commotion, now appeared at their windows or doors, and watched as the woman was carried out on a stretcher and the police van pulled away slowly with her husband locked in the back. Soon peace was restored and the residents returned to their beds, curious about the disturbance in the middle of the night.
Apart from this, the night shift was uneventful. As Erlendur was leaving work, he saw the wife-beater waiting for a taxi outside the police station. He had been released after questioning, free to go, as the incident was considered closed. His wife’s condition was not critical; in a few days she would be discharged from hospital and no doubt return home to him. She probably had little alternative. There was no support network for women who suffered domestic abuse.
Before leaving, Erlendur had flicked through the incident report and noted that a middle-aged man had driven into a lamppost in the Vogar district and written off his car. He had been alone and highly intoxicated at the time. Erlendur guessed from the description of the vehicle that it was the one which had nearly crashed into them on Bústadavegur.
For a moment he stood looking up at the ultramodern building of the police headquarters on Hverfisgata, then strolled down to the seafront on Skúlagata, gazing first north to the flat-topped mass of Mount Esja, then over at the mountains to the east. The sun shone high above their peaks. It was early Sunday morning and the tranquillity that had descended over the city did much to exorcise the ugly tumult of the night.
As he walked, his thoughts returned once again to the tramp who last year had been found floating in one of the flooded workings on Kringlumýri. For some reason the case continued to haunt him. Perhaps because the man had not been a complete stranger. Erlendur had been on patrol nearby when the report came in, so he had been first on the scene. In his mind’s eye he saw the green anorak in the water and the three boys who had gone out on the raft.
Erlendur knew that in the year that had elapsed since the man drowned Reykjavík CID had uncovered no evidence of suspicious circumstances. Yet he was also aware that the death of a homeless man had not been given high priority. They had other fish to fry and, besides, it looked like an open-and-shut case; the assumption was that the tramp had stumbled in and drowned by accident. No one seemed interested. Erlendur wondered if that was because the man had not mattered to anyone. All his death meant was one less vagrant on the streets of Reykjavík. And perhaps his death was that straightforward. But, then again, perhaps not. Shortly before the man died, Erlendur had heard him allege that someone had tried to set fire to the cellar in which he lived. Nobody had believed him, Erlendur included, and now it troubled him that he had not listened to the man, merely brushed him off with the same indifference as everyone else.
Copyright © 2015 Arnaldur Indridason.
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Arnaldur Indridason won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Silence of the Grave and is the only author to win the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel two years in a row, for Jar City and Silence of the Grave. Strange Shores was nominated for the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger Award.