Erlendur stood over the grave in the freezing cold, searching for a purpose to the whole business of life and death. As usual he could find no answers. There were no final answers to explain the life-long solitude of the person in the urn, or the death of his brother all those years ago, or why Erlendur was the way he was, and why Elías was stabbed to death. Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.
I read two of Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels a couple of years ago. Both were pretty depressing; of the two, Silence of the Grave was both bleaker and better. After that I said I needed a break from “grim nordic noir” for a while, and I don’t think I’ve read any since (except The Terrorists for class, which isn’t actually that grim in spirit, despite the severity of its social criticism). After I finished Arctic Chill yesterday, I felt, again, that I’d had enough for a while: it is even more relentlessly unhappy than I remember the other two being, in ways that are pretty well summed up by the quotation above.
Arctic Chill struck me as more perfunctory, as a crime novel, than Silence of the Grave: it doesn’t try to do as much that is interesting or meaningful or literary. It does focus on an important topic: the victim’s mother is an immigrant to Iceland from Thailand, and his death immediately raises questions for the police, and for the media, about whether it was motivated by racism or hostility to immigrants. During their investigation, Erlendur and his team turn up plenty of both attitudes, sometimes casual, sometimes virulent, and thus the novel joins other recent European crime fiction (including Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close) in examining the tensions and prejudices stirred up by changing demographics in supposedly “liberal” societies.
Though the particulars of the case were reasonably well developed, in the end I didn’t think Indriðason did much of interest with either the form of the novel or the resolution of the case: the crime does not ultimately reveal anything in particular about racism or immigration, for instance, instead turning more or less on random chance and pointless hooliganism. On the other hand, that outcome is consistent with Erlendur’s conviction that life has no meaningful patterns. There are some other thematic threads that add unity to the novel, too, particularly the recurrence of missing people, including Elías’s older brother, the woman at the center of Erlendur’s other case, and, in the past, Erlendur’s brother, who was lost in blizzard in their childhood. His body was never found, and throughout Arctic Chill Erlendur is haunted by memories and questions about this personal tragedy which has defined the rest of his life in terms of loss and remorse.
I’m never tempted by mystery series that have what strikes me as an unduly cheery aspect: the ones that come with brownie recipes or crossword puzzles or starring cats or dogs. Crime is a serious business, or should be. It hardly makes sense, then, for me to complain that Indriðason takes it too seriously. I think what I want is more of a payoff for the misery: if not a glimmer of hope that life can be more than random “injury or death,” at least more layers to the characters or the social commentary. Arctic Chill just seemed formulaically gloomy.