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arctic chill

30 september 2009

I seem to be developing an addiction to murder mysteries set in extremely cold climates. This fall, I've been alternating Stan Jones's Nathan Active Mysteries with Arnaldur Indriðason's Icelandic crime novels, featuring detective Erlendur of the Reykjavík CID. Arnaldur's latest is Arctic Chill, published in Iceland and in English translation in the UK in 2005, but new from Minotaur in the US this month. Arctic Chill confirms Arnaldur's standing as one of the top international mystery writers, and one of my personal favorites.

Arnaldur's popularity in English translation rides in on the coattails of Swedish writer Henning Mankell's huge international success with Inspector Kurt Wallander. Wallander is a lonely, irritable, alienated chief of detectives in Ystad, a town of about 17,000 where half the population are serial killers engaged in murdering the other half. His penchant for brooding cerebration fueled by fast food and neglect of hygiene made Wallander the world's most popular sleuth.

One hesitates to say that Erlendur, his Icelandic counterpart, is a knock-off of Wallander. For one thing, the Erlendur mysteries are more consistently good than the Wallanders. Four of Mankell's Ystad novels (Faceless Killers, Sidetracked, The Fifth Woman, and One Step Behind) are better than anything Arnaldur has written. But other Wallanders are puzzlingly flat, topical, and rhetorical.

For another, Arnaldur is riding a general wave of interest in all things Scandinavian and homicidal. Åke Edwardson and the late Stieg Larsson have become bestsellers in Swedish and in many translations. The cachet of the northerly detective novel has spread to Dutch writer A.C. Baantjer and his hero De Cock. So perhaps it isn't fair to characterize Arnaldur as derivative simply for giving us yet another Poirot in an anorak.

However, one should note some extremely close parallels between Erlendur and Wallander. Both are sourly-divorced guys, getting no younger. Both have difficult daughters (though Erlendur also has a son). Both have a cadre of stressed-out colleagues (a central one is a woman in each case): good police, but interpersonally a bit snappish. Neither is remotely involved with that woman colleague, preferring personal distance on all fronts. Each has a semi-legendary mentor (a feature of Edwardson's novels, too). Each eats bad food and wears ghastly pullovers.

Arnaldur and Erlendur remain my preferred Scandinavian detective fare because of the meticulous evocation in these novels of place (a place that, granted, I've never visited, and of which I certainly miss many nuances in translation). Arnaldur's writing is deeply nationalist, steeped in his country's lore of survival against the elements (Erlendur's principal obsession). And yet, though the love of Icelandic culture is strong, Arnaldur's novels are hardly xenophobic.

Arctic Chill, for instance, centers on a Thai immigrant family. Sunee and her sons Elías and Niran face prejudice from native Icelanders. But they also find many supportive friends in a country with a deep-rooted social conscience and strong traditions of human rights. Erlendur and his team work ceaselessly to bring Elías's murderer to justice.

Arnaldur's novels are intricately plotted mysteries, with precise settings, yet they also manage to depict aspects of the human condition that we can only call universal. Perhaps these depictions are Utopian. Perhaps they serve the liberal ideals of world-is-flat capitalism. But experience suggests that almost every human experience really does translate around the globe – just as the Thai immigrants in Arnaldur's Reykjavík act, in all essential respects, exactly like his Icelanders.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Arctic Chill. [Vetrarborgin], 2005. Trans. Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb, 2005. New York: Minotaur, 2009.

Danish title: Vinterbyen
French title: Hiver arctique
German title: Frostnacht
Italian title: Un grande gelo