Monday, 8 September 2008

CATCHING AN ARCTIC CHILL

ARCTIC CHILL
Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker £11.99 ISBN 9781846558652


A young Thai boy, knifed to death behind a grim block of flats in the middle of
Reykjavik's Icelandic winter. The scene is chilling, in both senses of the word, but it is also incongruous, like a tall palm in the middle of Iceland's volcanic rock. The story, as you might expect, is concerned to some extent with how those who are visibly different fit into a society as genetically homogenous as Iceland's, in that, it could be viewed as a sequel of sorts to Jar City (retitled Tainted Blood), in which the limitations of Iceland's genetic pool were a major part of the plot.

Like that novel, this one is also more concerned with family, and other relationships. Elias, the dead boy, is the child of a Thai bride brought back to Iceland by his Icelandic father, and his elder half-brother, her fully Thai son is missing. Although the investigation starts with racial conflict, it soon expands into child abuse, as a suspected paedophile is somewhere in the area, though his identity is known only to one of his victims.

Meanwhile, Erlendur's mentor,Marion Briem, is dying, and his long-estranged son is curious about the incident from Erlendur's childhood where he and his brother were lost in the snow. As usual, there is a large element of meditation within this novel, and it is concerned with the parent-child relationship. In a society where everyone is alone against the cold, metaphors easily become reality; Briem dies alone but for Erlendur, and the men, though intimately bound together, were close in no real sense. Indridason uses the police procedural to allow himself the pace to investigate such issues, while still following the crime. That Sigurdur Oli was a rebellious student at Elias's school reminds Erlandur, and us, that there is much we don't know about characters we think we know well. And that is true of the people in this story; their distance is the real arctic chill of the title.

Oddly, I read this book and Johan Theorin's ECHOES FROM THE DEAD in succession; Theorin's is set on the Swedish Baltic island of Oland, from which my grandmother emigrated to America. Its climate is not as harsh as Iceland's, nor are its winters as dark, but there is the same sense of isolation, and the alvar of Oland, on which a boy is lost at the story's beginning,is strangely like the Icleandic landscape in which Erlender and his brother were lost. Both books are concerned with the ways in which we deal with survival and loneliness,and the way those two seem related. That Indridasson manages to weave his musings into a story which resolves in a normal, that is to say, non-melodramatic way, is a measure of his talent as a crime writer.

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