4 April 2013

Review: BLACK SKIES, Arnaldur Indridason

  • First published in Icelandic in 2009
  • This edition published in English by Harvill Secker 2012
  • translated into English by Victoria Cribb
  • ISBN 978-1-846-55581-7
  • 330 pages
  • source: my local library
Synopsis (Amazon)

A man is making a crude leather mask with slits for eyes and mouth, and an iron spike fixed in the middle of the forehead. It is a 'death mask', once used by Icelandic farmers to slaughter calves. He has revenge in mind.

Meanwhile, with Detective Erlendur absent, his baseball-loving colleague Sigurdur Óli is in the spotlight. A school reunion has left Sigurdur Óli dissatisfied with life in the police force. Iceland is enjoying an economic boom and young tycoons are busy partying with the international jet set. In contrast, Sigurdur Óli's relationship is on the rocks and soon even his position in the CID is compromised: when he agrees to visit a couple of blackmailers as a favour to a friend he walks in just as a woman is beaten unconscious. When she dies, Sigurdur Óli has a murder investigation on his hands.

The evidence leads to debt collectors, extortionists, swinging parties. But when a chance link connects these enquiries to the activities of a group of young bankers, Sigurdur Óli finds himself investigating the very elite he had envied. Moving from the villas of Reykjavík's banking elite to a sordid basement flat, Black Skies is a superb story of greed, pride and murder from one of Europe's most successful crime writers.

My Take

In retrospect, what strikes you about Indridason's books is how well crafted they are. The stories build layer on layer. They also demonstrate how small the Icelandic community actually is - although the residents don't necessarily know each other directly, they do belong to overlapping groups. Just as Iceland is a microcosm of the world's DNA, so it presents a laboratory of crime.

For the second title in a row Indridason's grumpy detective Erlendur has gone missing. (See OUTRAGE). This leaves his team to their own devices a bit, and Sigurdur Óli is not a team man at the best. A school reunion leads to him investigating a blackmailing case for an old school friend, his mother persuades him to look into the daily pilfering of an elderly friend's newspapers, and when a tramp comes looking for Erlendur he decides to follow up himself.

Sigurdur Óli is a very human detective who quite often makes mistakes and at least twice in BLACK SKIES he realises that he has woven events together in the wrong way and leapt to the wrong conclusions. Nor does he reveal to the rest of the team what he is up when he really does need help. He always seems to keep back little bits of information that he should be sharing. On the other hand he is what I think of as a fractal investigator, seeing small leads as worth investigating and that is partly what makes this book such a good read, as he goes off in directions the reader has not contemplated.

Having said that, I think I ready now for Erlendur to return, or to at least find out what has happened to him. His absence is a device that the author can surely sustain only for a couple of novels. In OUTRAGE it gave readers the opportunity to become better acquainted with Elinborg, and in BLACK SKIES with Sigurdur Óli. Of course, one of the advantages of this ploy is that a reader new to Indridason does not have to worry about not having read the earlier novels in the series.

There is a strong sense of setting in BLACK SKIES, not just the Icelandic setting, with characters known by single names, but also an explanation of the events that eventually lead to the global financial crisis and the collapse of the Icelandic economy. Like many contemporary crime fiction authors Indridason has embedded strong social comment in the novel.

My rating: 4.9

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Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for the fine review. I like the Erlendur series very much, and one of the big reasons I do is exactly what you mentioned about the layering in the stories. And I'm ready for the return of Erlendur myself.

John said...

Interesting review of an apparently very dark book. It is good to be introduced to this author.
Something from the synopsis immediately attracted me: "...a crude leather mask with slits for eyes and mouth, and an iron spike fixed in the middle of the forehead. It is a 'death mask', once used by Icelandic farmers to slaughter calves." My first thought was: there has to be an easier way to kill calves. But my ultimate thought was: I'd like to learn more about the old Icelandic method.


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