Saturday, September 18, 2010

Arctic Chill, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Looking back through my blog posts here, I'm surprised to see that I haven't written up anything on Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason yet. This is the fourth book of his I've read, although fifth in the Detective Erlendur series as far as the ones that have reached America go. Oddly, the first two books in the series have not been published in the U.S. (I'm kind of baffled by how frequently books in translation reach us in the wrong sequence--it's okay with 'regular' novels, but it doesn't make much sense with series.)

Arctic Chill is the story of a murder investigation into the death of a young boy of Thai descent who is found frozen in the snow outside an apartment block. Arnuldur (last names aren't really used in Iceland, which is lucky for me, because his patronymic Indriðason is one I must resort to cut and paste to print) uses this situation to examine many different kinds of attitudes toward the steadily growing foreign population that has come to what previously has been a very insular, one race culture. I expect that in the time since this book was written many of the guest workers have gone home. But as this book makes clear, even when things don't work out, there are wives left stranded in the wrong hemisphere, children of one culture born in the homeland of another, and people caught between two worlds, who can't negotiate the gap. And I do have to say that all the way through the book, I felt a kind of shivering pity for all these Southeast Asian people having to endure a world of winter and snow. 

I liked this outing, though it wasn't my favorite. Part of this was probably due to a fairly clumsy and confusing translation, which I have since heard was due to the death of original translator Bernard Scudder midprocess and the attempt to finish the project by someone else. But I think some of it was just due to the fact that we have less of Erlendur and his doleful family drama than in the others. Erlendur left his wife with two young children early on, and due to the bitterness of that separation he lost contact with his children. They in turn have not fared so well without him. One of the continuing strengths of the series is the strained and in some cases terrible relation between Erlendur and his drug using daughter Eva Lind. The kind of hopeless yet somehow hopeful connection between them seems very real, and one of the uses of series books is that situations like this can go on without being resolved neatly at the end.

As a child Erlendur lost his little brother in a terrible snow storm. He was not at fault, but still feels perpetually guilty. How a tragic event can shape the life of a survivor, and how that in turn affects the lives of all who try to connect with him is also one the continuing themes Arnuldur explores in an aching, understated way.


  1. I don´t think any of the ´guest workers´ have gone home. At least not if the situation is the same as in Denmark. The problem was that everybody (including our immigrants, I believe) thought these workers moved to Denmark for a few years and would return to their native countries eventually. So no one did anything to integrate them, and twenty years later the problems began when we had second-generation immigrants who could not speak proper Danish and went on importing husbands and wives from their home countries (often people who could barely read or write). I believe the problem is smaller in Iceland, but it has led to racial tension in Denmark and Sweden.

  2. That's interesting, if sad. I know that in Ireland for instance, where perhaps the foreign laborers are more recent and have not become so settled, they were talking on a news show about how many Eastern Europeans were having to return home now that the Celtic Tiger had relented a little. But of course, that's different. The fare back is much cheaper, and they're all in the EU together. But Iceland's bust after boom was so spectacular, that I've wondered how it's all shaken out.

    I guess I'll have to wait and see what Indriðason does with it in subsequent novels. He doesn't seem like the type to just leave that kind of thing lie.

  3. It is indeed sad. I can understand that a large percentage of the world´s population would like to live and work in Denmark as we have quite a fine tight well-fare net, but the problem is that it is geared to 5 million people and not much more than that. So even though I wish we could do more about problems like poverty, war and unemployment, I think other nations will have to chip in also.

  4. True--a lot of these problems are world problems and require a more collective solution. Whether we can get it together enough to provide that is another question.

  5. I've occasionally asked about the order in which novels are translated into English. A British or American publisher will occasionally notice a series after it's been around for a few books and will then translate the book that is new at the time. The publisher may wait to see how that book does before commissioning translations of earlier books in the series. This was the case with the British translations of Jo Nesbø.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. Right, it makes sense from an economic point of view, but little sense from a reader's point of view.

  7. Well, I've often read series out of order, and only once has this given me a jolt. I got over it quickly, though. I think the importance of reading in series order is overrated.

    In the matter of Nesbo, U.S. readers are getting in series order the three books that it would be desirable to read in order.

    I've read him in a mix of UK editions, American editions, and Canadian editions, so I was all over the map.