BOOK REVIEW: Silence of the Grave, Arctic Chill, Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Through his thoughts he felt the deep silence that reigned in his life. Felt the solitude all around him. The burden of monotonous days piling up in an unbreakable chain that enveloped him, tightened around him and smothered him.

Though they might well be, these are not the ponderings of someone too long subjected to the lonely deprivations of the Covid-19 pandemic; they are the thoughts of Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, returned to his spare apartment after an unbearably long day and a half spent caring for his pregnant, homeless, drug-addicted daughter early in Silence of the Grave. His works have been translated into forty languages and there are ten million copies in print. Erlendur is a fifty-year-old divorced detective inspector who lives alone in Reykavik, Iceland has little contact with his dysfunctional family, and does nothing but work. The fatalistic tone of the passage quoted above typifies his mood in the moments of sombre reflection that occur throughout Indridason’s novels.

Erlendur comes honestly by his dour, somewhat defeatist mindset. As a boy, he was caught in a sudden blizzard with his father and younger brother. The father lost contact with his sons in the blinding snow and barely made it home alive. The ten-year-old Erlendur is discovered by a search party, buried in a snowdrift, comatose yet still revivable. But the younger brother, Bergur, is never found. For years Erlendur roams the mountains and moors looking for him. In Reykyavik Nights, as a young man serving on the night shift in Traffic, he investigates unsolved homicides and mysterious disappearances that are not part of his job. As a full-fledged city detective, far from the countryside where he grew up, he is mesmerized by old cases of people who simply vanished, works them on his own time, unable to get out of his mind the fate of the disappeared. He has a penchant for social outcasts—the homeless, drunks, people who commit suicide—and obsessively probes their histories. His own past, that of his childhood and that of his now-broken nuclear family, haunt him.

In Silence of the Grave, which won two prestigious awards, in the course of trying to discover the identity of a skeleton found buried in the foundations of a new building site, he uncovers a story of horrific domestic abuse, another theme that recurs frequently in the novels. And the question of identity—Who is this corpse? Who caused it to be there? What kind of people were they?—surfaces not only in his cases but in his own life. The drive to retrieve a lost person, or a lost identity, merges with Erlendur’s sporadic absorption in the mystery he is to himself. He longs not only to find out what happened to his brother, but to recapture his own essence, which he feels was left at the farm where he grew up long ago. The silence of the grave is an image of silence he finds at the core of his own being.

  Arctic Chill, a novel in which an immigrant child is found stabbed to death behind the block of flats where he lived, registers the degrees of prejudice against immigrants in Iceland and the difficulty that non-Icelanders have in adjusting to the local culture. But its core once again lies in Erlendur’s past. “He pictured Elias (the immigrant child) lying in the back garden of the flats, and once again an old image entered his mind, of another boy who all those years ago, that unfathomable eternity, had died in a raging blizzard.” Musing on the state of mind induced in people who witness such tragedy, he thinks: “the mind seized on anything to ease the pain, as if the situation could still somehow be put right. . . When the hope began to wane by the day and then vanished by the week and month and year, it was replaced by a feeling of numbness toward life. Some people managed to keep it at bay. Others, like Erlendur, nurtured it and made the pain their lifelong companion.” That pain becomes a source of sympathy and attraction for the reader, as Erlendur’s compassion for the suffering of both victims and survivors becomes more evident. After  viewing the cold body of Elias at the hospital, Indridason writes of him as he’s leaving: “The cold had intensified by the time Erlendur drove away, his eyes reflecting the frozen grief at the morgue.” In Arctic Chill, even the weather comes to reflect the mind state of the protagonist, of the people he’s trying to help, and the physical state of the corpse whose death baffles him.

These themes come together with special force in Hypothermia which, unlike Indridason’s other crime stories and detective fiction in general, focusses on the question of life after death. Reading Hypothermia made me realize what an outstanding craftsman and insightful explorer of the inner life this author is. With its crystalline prose, complex layering, and atmosphere of doom, it outdistances many novels whose claims to literary distinction are more obvious. In it Erlendur manages, on his own time, to discover what happened to two young people who, in supposedly unrelated cases, had been missing for thirty years. He reveals the murder, which had been declared a suicide, of a woman named Maria who, as a child, had witnessed the death of her own father, whom her mother had pushed out of their boat into the icy waters of Lake Thingvellir, thereby uncovering another previously undetected crime. (As for Thingvellir, Icelandic place names deliberately adorn Indridason’s prose, lending it texture and a touch of the exotic.)

Maria was fascinated with the possibility of life after death and strove in every way she could to learn more about it. Though Erlendur is skeptical of seances and signals from the departed, his resistance to belief in otherworldly phenomena diminishes as the story unfolds. When he visits a medium whom the victim had consulted, their conversation ends like this:

“There’s nothing malign about the spirit world,” Andersen said.

“We all have our ghosts. You not least.”

“Me?” Erlendur said.

Andersen nodded.

“A whole crowd,” he said. “But don’t worry. Keep looking. You’ll find them.”

“You mean him,” Erlendur said.

“No,” Andersen said, contradicting him and standing up. “I mean them.”

End of chapter. The author leaves us hanging, his sudden taciturnity a reflection of Erlendur’s. Apparently Erlendur admits to having one ghost, his brother, but are there others? We’ll never know.

herself, is the victim of a plot involving elaborate subterfuge and calculated murder on the part of her husband and his mistress (False, unfaithful, violent, and murderous husbands take quite a licking in these books.) But an atmosphere of supernatural possibility envelops the unfolding of events. The wall between this life and what lies beyond it has somehow been breached, though we are none the wiser for it.

Though Erlendur succeeds brilliantly in solving his cases, incomprehension, bafflement, and persistence in the face of difficulties characterize his actual experience. His frustration, self-doubt, and willingness to admit failure bring him close to us—much as the wrinkles in the similar character of Kurt Wallander in Henning Mankell’s crime novels make him all the more attractive. It’s not too much to say that these and other parallels make Indridason Iceland’s Henning Mankell: both geniuses of sorts. Matter-of-fact and moody, vulnerable and grim, Indridason-Erlendur is another star in the firmament of Scandinavian noir. ~