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23 september 2013

"Stirbt Erlendur?" screams the dust jacket of the German translation of Arnaldur Indriðason's Furðustrandir (which is called Eiseskälte in German and Strange Shores in English, at least in the UK).

Is Erlendur dead? I'll tell you this much: he's alive, if not entirely well, to take on another cold case in Eiseskälte, though far be it from me to tell you if he survives. Two more Erlendur novels have since appeared in Icelandic, but since it's quite like Erlendur not to show up for one of his own novels, that tells you nothing.

In Eiseskälte, Erlendur travels to the far east of Iceland to search, once again, for the remains of his brother, lost in a childhood journey through a snowstorm. This is the kind of quest one should give up, to retain some sanity, but if Erlendur gave up on it, he wouldn't be Erlendur. His brother's is the pattern of all the long-ago deaths he investigates.

Though it's not the longest-ago. No sooner does Erlendur reach the eastern fjords than some of the locals begin to tell him about the disappearance, during the Second World War, of a young woman named Matthildur. She had wandered out one day to cross a mountain, at the same time that a detachment of British soldiers were crossing it in the other direction. The inevitable storm blew up (just like the later one that would claim Erlendur's brother). Some of the soldiers died; others survived; all were recovered. Matthildur, by contrast, was simply never seen again.

Of course, sometimes people get lost in Iceland and are never seen again; Erlendur knows this only too well. Still, it's odd that every Tommy on the mountain would be accounted for – and that none of them would report encountering Matthildur. Our hero is hooked by the legend. He starts asking around. In the manner of every cold-case investigator since the time of Oedipus Rex, he finds living witnesses who will talk to him. But what they have to say is contradictory, self-serving, and misleading. Only by pressing his curiosity beyond the bounds of decency can Erlendur learn what happened over 60 years before. And once he learns, well, what can one do?

Meanwhile, Erlendur also finds out that foxes will take all sorts of oddments that they find back to their dens. (Hence the otherwise obscure title of the Italian translation: Le abitudini delle volpi.) He starts to make the rounds of foxhunters and collectors of fox memorabilia. Will he find items that speak to his brother's fate?

The action of Eiseskälte takes place, it seems, simultaneous with the plots of Frevelopfer and Abgründe. This is a record, in my experience of crime-novel series: a narrative stream that splits into three channels and runs along during the same stretch of narrative time. Will the streams reconverge?

Arnaldur Indriðason. Eiseskälte. [Furðustrandir, 2010.] Translated by Coletta Bürling. Köln: Lübbe, 2012.

English title: Strange Shores
French title: Étranges rivages
Italian title: Le abitudini delle volpi