With all the verbiage expended on so-called 'depressive detectives' from Scandinavia, its often overlooked that the so-called depression of everyone from Martin Beck to Harry Hole is neither exclusively Scandinavian, nor is it firmly in some sort of Nordic tradition. Indeed, part of the appeal of this strand in detective fiction has been the way it sheds light on the roles of individuals within societies who have watched the balance between personal responsibility and societal responsibility shift, with crime often the result.
But the traditional sort of Nordic depression, something different from Germanic angst, was founded on the basic idea of the individual battling alone in the dark and cold world. It is what we hear in the music of Jan Garbarek, it is what we found in Ingmar Bergman, those of us old enough to have been entranced by each successive film questioning our place in the universe, not just society.
This is what I have found in Arnaldur Indridason, and perhaps more than any of the current crop of crime writers from the North, his Erlendur is a throwback to that kind of Scandinavian world. And to my mind, is a detective novel Bergman could have felt very much at home filming. I'd been wondering about Erlendur's fate as his colleagues worried about his car spotted on the eastern Icelandic wilderness, and masterfully, Indridason has traced his footsteps.
As always, Erlendur is searching for some clue about his childhood, about the disappearance, and presumed death, of his younger brother when they got lost in a sudden storm. His almost morbid interest in other disappearances is piqued by the story of a young woman, Matthildur, who disappeared in a storm on the same night 60 British soliders went lost in the Eskifjordur valley. Her ghost was said to haunt her house, and to have moaned when her husband Jakob, killed by another storm while fishing, was buried.
The story is simple. Erlendur goes back and forth among the older people of the area, those who remember Matthildur and Jakob, prodding and poking them to turn over buried bits of the past. Staying in the now-derelict cottage where he lived as boy, and where his brother disappeared, and getting colder every night, he moves almost relentlessly, with the quiet fervour of a man seeking to know what is ultimately unknowable.
Much of Scandinavian crime fiction is about changing societies, and Erlendur has always stood for the older style of life, even in Iceland, the most remote of those nations. But here the story is all about the past, all about the grave things that can be hidden in even the smallest, most tightly knit, communities. It is about the basic drives to find meaning from life, when life is harsh and death a constant presence. Erlendur will 'solve' the mystery of Matthildur, and he will discover something about his brother, and remember more about himself. The ending, if inevitable, is written with an absolutely deft and honest touch—avoiding the melodramatic or romantic. It is for Erlendur the culmination of his life, or anyone's, and it resonates in the reader's heart long after the book is done.
Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, £12.99, ISBN 9781846557118
Note: This review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)