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nacht über reykjavík

8 september 2015

There was no need for me to read Reykjavíkurnætur in German, since it came out in English quickly enough as Reykjavik Nights. But other recent Erlendur detective novels by Arnaldur Indriðason languished awhile before appearing in the US, and I'd gotten used to picking up the newest one in Coletta Bürling's lively, lucid German every year.

Nacht über Reykjavík is a "Commissaire's First Case" novel, a substantial subgenre of the police procedural. It's 40 years ago; Erlendur is young, not yet married. He's a patrol cop on the night shift, which in Reykjavík in midsummer means the perpetual-twilight shift. He and his partners Garðar and Marteinn spend their nights sorting out traffic incidents, arresting drunk drivers, responding to calls about break-ins or excess noise. Rousting homeless people and getting them to shelters is another aspect of the work, and in the course of these banal nighttime duties, Erlendur meets and becomes interested in an aging alcoholic named Hannibal. But before too long, Hannibal is found floating dead in his green anorak in a local pond.

Or rather, Hannibal is found dead in the pond in the book's first paragraph, a discovery that, in the way of Krimis, the novel loops back to continually. The narrative is non-linear, not that a crime-fiction reader will have the slightest problem following it. Bit by bit, Erlendur pieces together what he knows about Hannibal, and bit by bit, we piece together, in a different sequence, what we know about what Erlendur knows.

We also get to know Erlendur's epistemology. Salvo Montalbano would call him a born sbirro, someone with an innate need to detect. Hannibal, who functions as an unnerving double to Erlendur in the novel, puts it another way: "Neugieriger als der Teufel [more curious than the devil]" (222). Hannibal is thinking of himself, but he knows that each man harbors a secret he won't share with the other, despite their infernal curiosity.

That curiosity leads Erlendur to ask questions relentlessly. He asks the same questions over and over; he answers questions with questions; when he doesn't get answers, he waits a day or two and comes back and asks the same questions again. At one point a suspect snaps at him: "Haben wir dir das nicht schon tausend Mal gesagt [Haven't we told you that a thousand times already]?" (325) Hannibal, while alive, and Hannibal's sister Rebekka, well after Hannibal's death, both realize that Erlendur is driven to keep hammering away at cold cases as expiation. He is always trying to find proxies for the cold case that will haunt him forever: the disappearance of his brother in a storm in the east of Iceland when they were children.

The young Erlendur is powerfully built, and has trained as a boxer (a bit surreptitiously, because boxing, like beer, is apparently outlawed in the Iceland of his day). He isn't above punching suspects – remember that we'll see him in the "future" in Menschensöhne (written much earlier) throwing his weight around; though as he ages he mellows. But he has an innate sense of justice. Throughout Arnaldur's novels he is the champion of women, children, the homeless – of anyone oppressed.

Hannibal's death leads Erlendur to investigate another cold case, the vanishing of a fun-loving young wife who walked away from a nightclub and was never seen again, at about the same time that Hannibal drowned. Oddný's partying habits seem to have brought her disappearance on herself; the prevailing theory is that she's killed herself over remorse for an affair. But that story doesn't add up for Erlendur: Oddný seems too full of life to have taken her own. Even her uptight, abusive ex-husband (who has an airtight alibi) hadn't been able to stamp out her joie de vivre. But who will speak for her now, if not our young traffic cop?

The one thing Erlendur can't seem to do is to relate to a woman who doesn't need a champion. In Nacht über Reykjavík we see the early stages of his relationship with Halldóra, who will become his wife and shortly thereafter his ex-wife. Halldóra knows exactly what she wants: marriage and kids. Erlendur, like so many fictional men found wanting, doesn't know what he wants and depends instead on inertia to keep him in one place or along tracks set by others – at least when there's no long-buried corpse in the picture. That insistent motif of the body coming to light after months or years becomes the spine of the entire remarkable Erlendur series.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Nacht über Reykjavík. [Reykjavíkurnætur, 2012.] Translated by Coletta Bürling. Köln: Lübbe, 2014.

English title: Reykjavik Nights
French title: Les nuits de Reykjavik
Italian title: Le notti di Reykjavík