Voices – A Powerful Crime Fiction from a Small Cold Country
We wouldn’t give much thought about Iceland’s capital Reykjavik as the setting for great police procedural. Scandinavian countries have far less crime rate compared to other nations in Europe. Iceland, particularly, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. The nation’s crime statistics bureau points out to the average possibility of two or three homicides a year. The murderers are also easily found because it might not be premeditated. The other crimes usually falls under the category of insignificant or petty crimes: for example, burglaries, embezzlement, etc. Of course, Iceland has its own black markets & drug underworld (hidden crime cultures) like every other nation on the planet. By the way, there’s lot of other things to write about Iceland: its legacy of colonization and war; its transformation from poor agricultural country to ultra modern society; the major financial crisis and the miraculous recovery; and loneliness, isolation, depression, cold weather, etc. But police procedural doesn’t seem to the right subject to take root in Icelandic literary scene. Arnaldur Indridasson, through his Inspector Erlendur crime series, actually proved us wrong.
Mr. Arnaldur was the son of renowned Icelandic novelist Indridi Thorsteinsson. He first worked as a journalist for an Iceland’s prominent newspaper, and then later settled on the job title of ‘film critic’. He was much interested in Icelandic literary tradition of saga and acquired a history degree from University of Iceland. In 1997, at the age of 36, he released his first novel in the Inspector Erlendur crime series, Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins) [Arnaldur’s first two novels are yet to be translated to English]. In 2005, Arnaldur’s third novel Myrin was translated to English by Bernard Scudder under the title ‘Jar City’ (in 2006, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur made a film based on the novel). The book turned out to be a best-seller and its rights was said to be sold over in 30 countries. ‘Voices’, fifth novel in the series, was written in 2003 and the English translated version released in 2006.
Nordic crime fictions are well known for its bleak, melancholic tone (partly reminding the sensibilities of American Noir fiction) and social realism. Swedish writers Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall were the first of Scandinavian novelists to plunge into the idea of weaving idiosyncratic police procedurals (they created Martin Beck series). Subsequently, Henning Mankell’s Detective Wallander series, Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad series, Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren series, Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, etc took similar path, whose international success fairly depended on the unique characterization of their central crime-solving characters (as good as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus). After Swedish journalist/novelist Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, the crime-fiction lovers’ thirst for Scandinavian procedurals reached a new high. Liza Marklund, Asa Larsson, Jusi Adler-Olsen (Department Q series), Camilla Lackberg, and the list of crime novelists from Scandinavia is only increasing year-after-year.
My obsession with Nordic noir (or crime fiction) started with Wallander and Martin Beck series and furthermore supercharged by Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Despite reading plenty of these crime fictions and delving into stupendous Scandinavian TV series (The Killing, The Bridge, etc), Arnaldur Indridasson’s novels owns a special place amongst this huge collection of detective yarns. The first great thing about his novels is the way he easily immerses us in the cold and bleak setting. Moreover, cold and bleak are the perfect words to describe Arnaldur character’s emotional state. Nevertheless, the author’s to-the-point prose also includes subtle, black humor which imbues an addictive quality to it. The second best thing about Arnaldur’s works is the brilliant evocation of Icelandic culture. The history of language, unique traditional cuisines (sheep head, smoked lamb, ox tongue), heritage, and the great sagas are some of the repeatedly touched cultural subjects in his novels. Of course, Arnaldur’s works wouldn’t have been as magnificent, if not for the morose, 50-something Inspector/Detective Erlendur.
Erlendur Sveinsson is a divorced, old-fashioned, introvert who spends his spare time reading stories about people who disappeared in snowy mountains and snow storms. He has a daughter (Eva Lind) and a son (Sindri), whom he never visited after the end of acerbic relationship with his wife. Grown-up Eva Lind traces Erlendur which gives away to complex father-daughter relationship. Both Eva and Sindri are suffering from drug addiction. In the novel Jar City, Eva Lind’s drug addiction propels her to prostitute herself. She often confronts her father with the question of why he didn’t visit them after the divorce. Erlendur doesn’t have a concrete answer to the question, yet his indifferent attitude towards life is hinted to have been shaped by the gloomy past. Erlendur has two side-kicks: young Sigurdur Oli, who studied Criminology in US, and contrasts with Erlendur’s old-fashioned Icelandic views; Elinborg, an efficient investigator and Erlendur’s only female colleague.
‘Voices’ opens a week before Christmas Eve at a busy hotel at downturn Reykjavik. The hotel is packed with foreign tourists, elated to experience arctic Christmas. The tourists don’t know yet that the hotel is also a crime scene. Erlendur is accompanied by Sigurdur Oli, Elinborg, and the uncooperative hotel manager to the hotel’s narrow basement. The hotel doorman Gudlaugur Egilsson is stabbed to death. He is cloaked in his Santa Claus suit (for the hotel Christmas parties) with pants resting around his ankles, and a condom dangling on the penis. The initial phase of investigation reveals that none of the hotel staffs got acquainted with the doorman who happens to have worked in the hotel for more than 20 years. Furthermore, no one actually cares about the murder. Everyone from the manager to head chef to other staffs is mired in the task of satisfying their foreign customers. Erlendur is rebuffed by this apathetic behavior. For reasons unknown, he books a room in the hotel and stays the night. He prefers the room to his ‘hole with books and other things’. It’s also the time of the year when atmospheric coldness and desolation perfectly aligns with his emotional scale.
Although Erlendur’s family life is a mess, his professional abilities are nothing short of brilliant. He is flawed, yet a good human being, who feels deep empathy towards the victims and boasts good sense of humor even when dark thoughts swamps over him. As always, the crime at the center of the novel is based on human failings which has a very universal appeal. Eva Lind is staying off the drugs (and slowly recovering from the shock of her still-born daughter’s death) and often visits Erlendur over the course of the case. It’s important to state that the story setting never leaves from the huge hotel (apart from the odd flashbacks). It’s very smart of writer Arnaldur to design the events around Erlendur’s extended stay & investigation in the hotel. The murder investigation makes head-way when the detective unearths a significant clue about Gudlaugur’s painful past. Meanwhile, Eva Lind becomes too difficult to deal with and moreover Erlendur pursues a possible romantic interest named Valgerdur, middle-aged forensic officer.
Voices and other Arnaldur’s novels aren’t fast-paced thrillers. In fact, most of the Nordic novels are unhurried, and plunges as much into the character’s sunken mental state as the intricacies of criminal deed. Arnaldur’s writing style is crisp, yet his profound way of addressing problematic social & cultural issues doesn’t exactly make up for light-reading. In Voices, the emphasis on Erlendur’s personal issues is brilliantly entangled with the details of the crime. For example, Erlendur recalling the fate of his younger brother after hearing the angelic voice of ‘child-star’ or Erlendur & Eva Lind uncovering a vital clue about the murder in the alcove of hotel’s basement after their altercation. It’s of course not a distinct trait to Arnaldur’s or Nordic novels. Depressing private lives of the fictional detectives are always evoked during the course of intricate Nordic procedural. Nevertheless, Mr. Arnaldur presents the problems suffocating Erlendur and the issues that led to murder in a profoundly realistic manner that the entanglement between them is so refined. In fact, the most memorable part of Arnaldur’s crime fictions are the characters and their existential crisis; not the minute details of crime.
The function of the crime narrative in Voices (and other Arnaldur’s novels) is neither to convey the ingenious nature of the detective nor to provide clear insight into Icelandic underworld. In Nordic noirs, the emphasis is mostly on the social context; the social problems of which crimes are a part. It’s why the discovery of killer’s identity in Nordic noirs never gives you the emotional catharsis, unlike the British and American detective yarns. Drugs, sexism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, political corruption, etc are the deep social ills which defies us to easily categorize people into ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’. The humans who are caught in this cycle of abuse are both victims and criminals. We can’t ignore one side over the other. When the murderer’s identity in Voices is revealed, we are more distressed because a victim, after putting up with years of abuse, has chosen to belong to the other side. But Arnaldur’s world and other Nordic crime writers’ universe aren’t devoid of hope. Detective Erlendur remains stubbornly unyielding to the end, despite facing life’s cruel tricks. The ending passage of ‘Voices’ wells-up tears in our eyes, since at last the characters feel something pure and angelic amidst all the desolation and emptiness.
Arnaldur Indridasson is one of the masters of the modern crime fiction. Voices is yet another fascinating novel in Arnaldur’s Inspector Erlendur series, where he once again roots his story deep inside Iceland’s idiosyncratic landscape and culture.