It's been a busy couple of weeks for the Reykjavik police, while Arnaldur Indridason's detective Erlendur has been completely out of touch while on holiday in the lonely eastern part of island where he grew up. The compression of time in published fiction means that while readers wait and wonder what has happened to the moody Erlendur, Indiridason has now written two novels, each starring one of Erlendur's supporting cast. In the previous one, Outrage, Elinborg took centre stage, and as I wrote at the time (you can link to that here), her dilemmas, and the case, encapsulated Indridason's recurring theme of conflict between the older traditional Icelandic life, and the new.
Black Skies, which features Sigurdur Oli, is very much rooted in the new Iceland, the boom country which famously went bust in a perfect foreshadowing of the global economic crisis. Oli himself is very much entrenched in a new Icelandic identity: he spends most of his time aping all things American, especially sport. In my own identity as an American sportscaster I began wondering if Oli's TV in Iceland, or his computer, actually could pick up my commentary on Channel 4, or Five, or Eurosport. Although Oli has disdain for most things Icelandic, in another sense, in his aloof loneliness, he seems a much more traditional figure: substitute hamburgers for horses' heads and he's as shut-off as Erlendur.
But he's dragged into a very modern-seeming case when a friend asks him to do a favour for his sister's wife and her husband, who are being blackmailed with photos taken while experimenting with wife-swapping. When Oli goes to visit the woman blackmailer, he finds she has literally just been murdered, and though he can't chase the baseball-bat killer, his dogged pursuit winds up uncovering other crimes, a possible second murder, and a number of small betrayals of his trust. Meanwhile, one of Erlendur's informants has supplied him with a small bit of film depicting his own abuse as a child, and he is in the process of extracting revenge on his abuser.
As the first case expands, Oli finds himself in almost over his head with the world of fast-moving high-finance, looking on with disdain at the conspicuous consumption which seems to be fuelling it. He's also forced to face the breakdown of his own relationship, and re-examine the way he saw the divorce of his own parents. That story acts as a parallel of sorts to the story of Andres, the abused child, and yet again provides the contrast with the old: Andres' only happy times was when he was taken from his mother and raised briefly on a farm, away from the 'modern' Iceland.
Oli's doggedness finally solves the murder, which turns out to be unconnected with the larger issues of money-laundering and speculating, and the possible second murder, another out in the old Icelandic wilderness, which may have done the killing itself. And Anndres' story resolves itself too, with a touching ending that acts as a coda to both stories, reminding us that beneath the trappings of our lives, how basic the needs of human existence really are.
Oli makes the perfect protagonist, in a sense, because he doesn't mull through these issues himself, as Erlendur would (Erlendur actually strikes me as being perhaps closer to John Harvey's Resnick, or Graham Hurley's Faraday than his Swedish forebears). This means the reader is free to make the connections and draw the conclusions for himself. This is why I think Black Skies is one of, if not the best, of Indridason's books. And, of course, we still don't know what's happened to Erlendur.
Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846555817
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk