Note: Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridasson was WINNER of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for Silence of the Grave and is twice the WINNER of the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel two years in a row, for Jar City and Silence of the Grave.
“What interests me most are stories about survivors…people who escape with their lives from dangerous situations in the Icelandic wilderness. How do they cope? Why do some live while others don’t, though the circumstances are similar? Why do some get into trouble and others not? ….[And I wonder about] the people left behind, left to struggle with the questions raised by the events…those left behind to cope with the grief and loss.”—Erlendur, detective with the State Criminal Investigation Department, Iceland.
If it sounds strange for the publisher to refer to this novel by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason as the “sequel to the prequel,” that is because the novels in this series featuring Detective Erlendur have not been published in chronological order. The first novel to be published in English, Jar City (2000) was actually the third novel in the series, and eight more novels have been published since then. Several of these books refer to a traumatic event in Erlendur’s childhood involving him, his father, and his much-loved brother, and the author and publisher are now providing more background information about Erlendur’s early years to fill in and develop more about his youthful experiences in an effort to explain his current psychological makeup and his dark vision of the world.
The recently released “prequel” to the series, Reykjavik Nights (2012), features Erlendur in his twenties, and the reader learns about his eventual marriage and the birth of his two children. Into Oblivion, the just released “sequel to this prequel,” takes place shortly after that in time – in 1979 – and the reader learns that Erlendur is now divorced, his children not a factor in the novel. The third novel, Jar City, released in 2000, is set twenty years later, with Erlendur in his late forties, leaving a twenty-year gap between Into Oblivion and its chronological successor, Jar City.
Set in Keflavik and its environs, Into Oblivion begins with an atmospheric description of a fierce wind blowing across the moors, “hurling itself against the mighty walls” of an aircraft hangar standing on the highest ground. One of the largest structures in Iceland, it is as tall as an eight-story building, can accommodate the wingspan of the world’s largest aircraft, and serves as the operational hub of the US Air Force and its fleet of spy planes. A man suddenly falls the eight stories from the scaffolding tower inside the hangar. In a shift of scene, a young woman with severe skin problems is soaking in a warm spring on the moors, hoping that the mineral-rich mud will help her conquer her painful ski condition. Suddenly, she sees a shoe, and then finds it connected to a body. The police enter the case and discover that the body has more broken bones than anyone can recall ever seeing, consistent with a fall from great height which no one has reported. Eventually, the site of the death is determined to be the hangar on the US military base.
The investigation of this death is complex. Several different agencies – the US military, the Icelandic police, and the political system of Iceland – all become involved. Cold war tensions in Iceland between those who support the US and its military presence and those who want the US gone from the country add to the difficulties. No one knows exactly what the US is doing on its secret missions between Iceland and Greenland, and no one is talking. Nor are people talking about the nature of the supplies going in and out of the country in large cargo planes. While Erlendur is helping on this slowly developing investigation, he is also researching an event from twenty-five years ago, in which a young schoolgirl disappeared, with no resolution of her case. Her aunt is hoping that the disappearance will eventually be solved, and Erlendur, who becomes obsessed with this story, begins to investigate the girl’s disappearance on his own time.
The novel’s slow evolution establishes the identities of the characters and their interrelationships in the first hundred or so pages and sets up some of the complications. Over fifteen more characters are introduced after that, however, and without keeping a character list to remember some of the minor characters, it would be difficult to keep track of who is who, as they lack the individualization which makes characters “live.” The novel also lacks the sudden violence for which Indridason is usually noted, thereby shifting the burden of the action to the characters and their interactions, and these are not especially memorable. The girl with the skin problems, for example, stirs great empathy at the beginning, then virtually disappears. The more limited scope and conversational tone makes the novel feel, at times, like a domestic drama, rather than the dark, hard-edged noir for which Indridason is so famous, and the two parallel plots – involving the man who has fallen from the scaffolding and the young girl who disappeared twenty-five years before – are not equally compelling.
Fans of Indridason will probably read and enjoy the novel because it provides a picture of Erlendur’s life in his twenties, but it felt to me more like a marking of time than a significant expansion of our understanding of Erlendur. Little new information is revealed about him, and with a twenty year gap existing between this novel and its successor, Jar City, a huge gap still exists between what we know of Erlendur in his twenties and what we may still need to know to understand him in his forties. Fortunately, the conclusion, though not unexpected in terms of its plot detail, does come through with some of Indridason’s trademark noir spirit, leaving the reader with a sense of resolution despite what I felt was the novel’s disappointing lack of energy.
Not part of the Erlendur series: OPERATION NAPOLEON (1999)
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on https://pl.wikipedia.org
The aircraft hangar in which Kristvin was found may have looked like this one: https://www.nasa.gov/
The Midnesheidi Moor to the south of Reykjavik is filled with hot springs and “mud pots.” http://vilagutazo.blog.hu/ Photo by Keller Istvan.
The huge C-130 Hercules cargo plane is used to transport enormous cargoes. http://mazuryairshow.pl
The 1948 Chevy Deluxe Fleetline plays a role in the dramatic conclusion of this novel: https://hiveminer.com/Tags/1949,fleetline