David Fuller's Reviews > Arctic Chill

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason
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's review
Apr 27, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery
Read in March, 2009

BEFORE making headlines for national bankruptcy, Iceland was mainly known for its unspoiled nature and disproportionately high literary output. Arnaldur Indridason's latest Reykjavik mystery is a good reminder why.

Previous entries in his detective Erlendur series translated into English have showcased Iceland's history, oddities and national predilections.

In Jar City it was the nation's genealogical interconnectedness. In The Draining Lake it was the uncomfortable peace between Icelanders and occupying American troops. And in Voices, it was the pressure felt in small country when one's talent wins international renown.

In Arctic Chill, a brooding, unsettling story, Indridason has racism in the spotlight. A half-Icelandic, half-Thai boy named Elias is knifed near his apartment complex.

Det. Erlendur and his cohorts, the punchy Sigurdur Oli and tougher-than-she-seems Elinborg, immediately consider whether the killing was racially motivated.

The fact is, before Iceland's infamous financial meltdown in late 2008, it was so prosperous immigrants crossed the world to live there. But given centuries of isolation and little experience with assimilating foreigners, not all Icelanders were so welcoming.

Elias's bitter Icelandic teacher Kjartan, for example, used to belong to an ultra-nationalist group that wanted to ban all immigration.

Students also form their gangs along racial lines -- pure Icelander versus foreigner.

Elias's older brother Nirin, a member of a gang made up of Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese, goes missing the day Elias is killed.

Since Erlendur and his own brother were lost as boys -- and his brother's body was never found -- he has had a special interest in missing persons. The Thai brothers' plight haunts him.

That such occurrences have been chillingly common in Iceland fosters a blasé attitude about them in the people he questions. "I've never heard of a 'normal missing persons case' before," Erlendur snaps, after hearing one too many thoughtless remarks.

It doesn't help when his estranged daughter Eva Lind shows up, wanting to dredge the whole story of his brother's death out of him.

Typically, Erlendur fumbles this chance at reconciliation -- he still can't deal with his childhood tragedy.

Adding to the story's dark edge is the failing health of Erlendur's one-time boss and mentor Marion Briem, whose sharp mind and tongue are barely able to help Erlendur on this case or in his personal life.

Erlendur begins to feel more and more isolated from those around him, a subtle parallel with the immigrant experience.

But the drive that has crippled Erlendur's social life is also what helps him prevail in his investigations. He derives little peace from unravelling Reykjavik's dark deeds, but his colleagues trust his hunches.

The only place Arctic Chill strays is in its examination of Icelandic attitudes to foreigners. It's a complex issue, unfamiliar to many North Americans for whom immigration may be recent in the family history.

The portrayal here is limited to fairly on-the-nose discussions in which some characters embrace mutliculturalism wholeheartedly while others simply see all foreigners as "them" and would like to see them shipped back home.

Still, Indridason makes up for it with deeper characterization and a pervasive sense of dread. He throws in twist after twist as Erlendur pieces together what really happened to Elias and his older brother.

It's another first-rate Nordic mystery, one that will leave you feeling chilled whatever the season you read it.

David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2009 B7


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