These are addictive; it's wonderful, and a near-forgotten pleasure, to devour books reflexively as I did when I was a kid. I've been moving the next o...moreThese are addictive; it's wonderful, and a near-forgotten pleasure, to devour books reflexively as I did when I was a kid. I've been moving the next one in this series from room to room for the past couple of days whilst I make myself finish a couple of other things first. I saw a review of another series (Ruth Galloway - after the archaeological element in Silence of the Grave - more archaeological mysteries really appeal) and the poster said they'd read all six novels in less than a fortnight - I could understand that happening with these Erlendur books...
Silence of the Grave starts with a stonking first line: He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it. Superbly sinister and grubby. Yet this is a nice middle class household; 'he' is a medical student and family friend.
I was quite swept up in this story, and it would have got 4.5 stars had it not been for a little cliche on the last page - which I'd hoped all the way through that the author wouldn't succumb to. It's at least as good a novel as Jar City, but there are no sociopolitical points I disagreed with. Both won the Nordic Glass Key in successive years, and Silence of the Grave also got the CWA Gold Dagger; I'm starting to get a sense of what characterises award-winning crime books: whilst they are a cut above some detective novels, they aren't necessarily 100% realistic, or free from genre tropes or the odd flaw (and the writing style may not satisfy those who expect something literary or stylistically notable), but they are very involving if you're in the right mood, and there's something out of the ordinary about the plot.
Erlendur, Elínborg and stray yuppie Sigurður Óli, during a quiet period for the force, investigate c.70 year old human remains found on a building site. There's zero urgency to the case and this is no action thriller, yet Indriðason maintains suspense throughout as to whose grave it is, whilst the pathologist is on holiday and a meticulous archaeologist takes his time over the site. There's skilful placement of detail about the gradually uncovered skeleton, in the flashback story of a woman and her children subjected to severe domestic violence, and rumours about the missing fiancee of a merchant who'd once had plans to establish Iceland's first supermarkets.
It was this book plus the chapters in Small Island about Queenie's job, and the routine, regional-news type crimes in early 2000s Danish TV series Unit One that made the penny drop that what I was really after was social work procedural, presented not as misery-memoir, but in the same matter of fact yet not unempathic way that these crime novels are written. Though of course crime solving presents more suspense, and a tidy conclusion in the way stories from many other public service occupations wouldn't. I don't like stories of serial killers, torture and gore though might read some, hopefully not very graphic, because I'm interested in the detective protagonist (I also don't quite get why some reviewers comment on how dark social realism like this is, but not serial killer novels.) What I'm finding most interesting in crime fiction are political thrillers quite removed from most people's lives, or the other end of the spectrum, storylines where the crimes emerge from a world of social exclusion and generational cycles of psychological issues.
Silence of the Grave adds to the latter a historical and archaeological theme, so of course I was riveted. The story of the abused family dates only from the inter-war period, but the conditions of Icelandic life at the time make it seem potentially much older; its rural grit - and that of Erlendur's early life - is much like the environment in working class Scottish fiction of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century. It has some differences from insightful stories of contemporary Western domestic abuse, because the woman is someone who, with access to modern services, would have got out fairly early on; she didn't come from an abusive background herself, doesn't want to stay, and took longer to succumb psychologically to her husband's aggression - it's the complete absence of support and protection that makes her so stuck. The book mentions once or twice that domestic violence services in Iceland are still inadequate (which is surprising given that it's now known for having a particularly egalitarian culture, and in the early to mid 2000s, when this was written, was a very well-off country). The story makes particular sense for its time, but given the social comment dimensions of Scandinavian crime fiction, must also be an exhortation to improve provision by presenting people who would very clearly use and benefit from it. At times the novel discusses causation via the abuse cycle, without ever minimising the horror of the experience, which is described as "soul death" - this is very well done, and it is not a book in which explanation could be seen as "excuse" by an angry reader, who felt a clinical approach failed to acknowledge what they'd seen.
I can't quite explain how, but there is something very compassionate about the way Indriðason's characters are written. I've picked up these books a few times when annoyed, including with a character in another book who'd reminded me of an old acquaintance I disliked for no worthwhile reason, and soon I feel much better disposed and more understanding towards people in general. Sigurður Óli, who doesn't exactly seem suited for public services and who's the most potentially dislikeable character, has his dismissive tendencies reined in by the others. Erlendur is the stereotypical grumpy fiftysomething cop with baggage, but whilst he's not terribly consistent with those he's close to, he does have plenty of empathy for those at a little more distance. This is the fourth novel in the Icelandic series but only the second in English, so the sense of him "finally" opening up as he tells the full story of how his brother went missing in childhood must have been much greater in the original.
It's also high time I stopped attempting to justify or explain reading books like this in the assumption that a lot of my friends / followers expect more 'literary' stuff. (Plus, it's part of what I was reading when I first joined - I'm going back to what I originally liked rather than being sidetracked or playing to a particular crowd of people I don't know.) Going to try not to do any more justifying after this post. I remember a GR review (but not which book it was) where someone was frustrated by the high ratings most Scandinavian crime fiction had; they thought the writing was pretty bad and found other reviews and ratings useless as a guide. They were simply looking for a different type of writing rarely found in this subgenre. (Reading ebook samples would solve that problem - it's not like you even need to buy or borrow anything, or go anywhere, to find out what the style is like.) I'm rating these things because I am enjoying them for what they are. (And sometimes my ratings are higher when the average is lower, because I like some thrillers in the same way I like so-bad-its-good action movies.)
Though Indriðason mentions in one interview that his style is influenced by the Sagas. It has greater clarity than Anne Holt's or Asa Larsson's - both of whom I've read in the last few months - and I'm pretty sure there's very little clumsy infodumping in comparison, but I'm deliberately reading faster, so might not notice. It's easy to trot out comparisons with the sagas for any Icelandic writing, but I think it's warranted here. The striking thing about the sagas I've read so far is that only externals, actions, are described, very rarely thoughts - though a bit of life experience and psychology makes all sorts of currents and reasons apparent. Indriðason gives his characters more internality, but the spareness and clarity, and the amount of suspense and action clearly has some parallel. I've really enjoyed the translations by Bernard Scudder, but am not looking forward so much to those later in the series by Victoria Cribb. Scudder sadly died (and early by modern standards) whilst working on one of his books, and Cribb took over. I've never been quite happy with any of her translations I've read so far, and started to consider her the common factor - but possibly if I read her Indriðason translations fast instead of mulling over the style, that and an existing relationship to the characters and themes will make them enjoyable. (less)