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BLACK SKIES
by Arnaldur Indridason and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Minotaur Books, September 2013
330 pages
$25.99
ISBN: 1250000394


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Though the American edition of this mystery calls it "an Inspector Erlendur novel," the lead character is actually Erlendur's difficult younger colleague, Sigurdur Óli. The action takes place during the same period of time as the previous entry in the series, OUTRAGE, in which Inspector Eliborg is working on the murder of a rapist and nobody is quite sure when Erlendur will return from the Eastern Fjords where he has retreated for reasons he hasn't explained. Though Sigurdur Óli would seem to be drab company – he has a habit of letting his prejudices lead him to conclusions too quickly and is enamored of all things American, having earned a criminal justice degree in the States – this expedition into his life shows just how well Arnaldur Indridason balances unsentimental realism and empathy. Sigurdur Óli doesn't change his stripes, but are able to see life through his puzzled eyes. He's hurt that his wife has left him after endless bickering, he's worried about his mild-mannered father who is in the hospital with a cancer that his son may inherit, and he's trying to figure out why his parents ever married and whether his mother's mix of neediness and distance may have poisoned his own marriage.

He doesn't spend much time thinking about his own affairs, though. He has to be on his toes to avoid being tossed off a case with which he has an undisclosed personal interest. A friend has asked him to warn off a woman who is trying to blackmail him and his politically ambitious wife after a round of unconventional sex. When Sigurdur Óli stops by the woman's house to give her a warning, someone else has gotten there first, a man who has beaten the woman so severely she may never regain consciousness. Sigurdur Óli gives chase, but the man escapes. As the investigation proceeds, the police begin to wonder whether the assault may be connected to the death of a banker who had gone on a corporate excursion to a glacier and had gotten separated from the group. Iceland has an unforgiving landscape for those who are unprepared for the power of nature. Meanwhile, a raggedy alcoholic keeps appearing at inopportune moments, wanting urgently to convey something to Sigurdur Óli, but unable to find the words.

As Sigurdur Óli unravels his assault case and ponders his damaged family relations, we learn in interspersed scenes about another, far more dysfunctional family. A son who went through horrors at the hands of his stepfather is now taking his revenge in a prolonged act of cruelty that seems to be destroying them both. This part of the book, though never gratuitous, is graphically disturbing.

Arnaldur Indridason is a master at narrative structure that in an understated way unfolds in layers so that parallels reveal themselves subtly, as if they are part of a natural landscape exposed through some geologic force. Moral values are eroded in a disastrous financial shell game that is enriching people for doing no more than moving dirty money around. Youth violence is erupting like something molten and under pressure. And Sigurdur Óli, who is comparing his failed marriage with his parents' and becoming ever so slightly self-aware, sees in a hollowed-out and shambling alcoholic traces of a life gone terribly wrong.

Erlendur will be returning in the next volume of this series and Elinborg, Sigurdur Óli, and a legion of readers will finally learn what he has been seeking during his mysterious absence. But in the meantime, we've learned a lot about his team of investigators and a great deal more about a small country that got caught up in the wave of greedy money-shuffling and excessive consumption that wrecked so many lives when it came crashing down.

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, September 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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