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by Arnaldur Indriđason, and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Harvill Secker, July 2012
336 pages
$22.00 CAD
ISBN: 184655540X

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Inspector Erlendur has gone walk-about, disappearing into the mysterious east (of Iceland), and no one is quite sure when he will return. His absence provides Arnuldur with the opportunity to turn his spotlight on two of Erlendur's subordinates, Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli. Elínborg had pride of place in last year's OUTRAGE; now it is Sigurdur Óli's turn. Though both books take place simultaneously, these were originally published a year apart, in 2008 and 2009, and thus are set in the heady and dangerous days before Iceland's banks collapsed, bringing down the entire economy.

It is that atmosphere that infuses BLACK SKIES and offends Sigurdur Óli. Everywhere he looks, he sees people living beyond their means, owning too many cars, eating far too much exotic food. He is not altogether opposed to foreign influence, however, as his chief recreation after work is watching American football on satellite. Though by no means elderly, he is set in his ways, stiff in manner, and blunt, even tactless, in his social interactions. All the same, he does have a few friends and when one of them, Patrekur, asks him to intervene in an unofficial way when his sister-in-law and her husband are being blackmailed because of some compromising photos, Sigurdur Óli obliges. He pays a visit to the supposed blackmailer, Lina, hoping to scare her into backing down from her threats, thus avoiding any embarrassment to her targets. But the door is ajar when he gets there and Lina lies dying on the floor. Her assailant is still in the house and Sigurdur Óli barely avoids sharing her fate.

This all presents Sigurdur Óli with a problem - how to explain his presence at Lina's house, now that it has become a murder scene. Reluctant to make a complete disclosure, he prefers to continue his investigation into the crime independently, without sharing all that he knows with the official police inquiry. At the same time, a derelict, Andrés, who first appeared in ARCTIC CHILL, keeps turning up, trying and failing to tell Sigurdur Óli something terribly important. Despite his announced dislike for the riff-raff he's required to deal with in the course of the day, Sigurdur Óli has an unexpected vein of compassion for Andrés as well as for victims of unofficial police "justice." One of his colleagues interprets the traditional "clip round the ear" as permitting a savage beating on the grounds that contemporary Icelandic justice is just too soft on offenders. Perhaps the good old days were not so hot after all.

As Sigurdur Óli pokes further into Lina's death, he is led on a trail that points in the direction of some "New Vikings," high-flying bankers who are living the good life on credit and who, the reader knows, are just the ones who will bring the economy crashing down in another year or so. And, brooding over the whole tangled web of New Vikings, wife-swappers, and minor blackmailers is the disturbing image of an earlier Iceland, a mask with a spike that kills, once devised as a means of disposing of unwanted lambs but now about to dispatch a human victim.

Though it is difficult altogether to warm to Sigurdur Óli, his stiff-necked presence in this shifting scene of ambiguously competing values does much to provide the depth and resonance we have come to expect of Arnaldur. If, as is at least possible, he is able to thaw and warm to a degree by the end of the book, then perhaps he can stand as a kind of human equivalent of the sort of lighthouse to which the original Icelandic title refers.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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