Chilling and chilly case for detective Erlendur

2009-02-11 00:00

This book, translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder and Victoria Cribb, is dedicated to the memory of the former who, presumably, died during the course of the work. The English is nonetheless seamless, easy and colloquial.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the book was worth the effort. While the earlier detections featuring Erlendur and his team from the Reykjavik police had a certain — admittedly gloomy — zest, this one seems as bitterly bleak and grey as the Icelandic winter that gives its name to the title. Erlendur’s whole being seems grey too, and, unsurprisingly, his favourite reading matter is true stories of people lost and mostly perished in the snow or drowned under the ice: he is bowed under the memory of a family tragedy of this kind.

The investigation is that of the death by stabbing of a young boy, a Thai immigrant, the train of evidence muddied by the fact that his half-brother is missing. Rather startling (though depressingly familiar) to the South African reader is the fact that even Iceland has an immigrant problem. Apart from refugees seeking to make a life there, mail-order brides from Thailand, docile, submissive, industrious, are quite common. And under the liberal, tolerant, increasingly multicultural surface of Icelandic society there festers, as in so many other countries these days, a hatred of the alien that reflects itself in antisocial adult behaviour and nastiness on the school playground.

This could have made a riveting story, both a detection and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people confined to a remote island and only belatedly discovering themselves to be part of the global village. Instead one is wearied by the lugubrious Erlendur and his irritating daughter, no longer entertained by his sidekick Sigurdur ´Oli, and wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to leave the whole thing buried in the fastnesses of the Icelandic language.

Stephanie Alexander

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