Sometimes the brain just craves crime. Not your cosy, locked room in a vicarage kind of crime fiction. But equally not the type that comes oozing with blood and mangled bodies. Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavík Nights fitted the bill perfectly being neither too slight nor too complex but offering a darkish mood and some bleak settings as you’d expect from Nordic Noir.
This is the second Indiridason novel I’ve read from his Inspector Erlendur series which began in English translation in 2000 with Jar City. Reykjavík Nights is actually a prequel, one of a “Young Erlendur” series that features Erlendur in the days when he was a humble cop on the beat in Reykjavík and is yet to join the hallowed ranks of the detective branch of the Icelandic police force.
Reykjavík Nights sees him just settling into the police force, working the night shift with two law students. His nights are full of robberies, road accidents, drunks and fights but his mind is pre-occupied by the death a year earlier of a homeless alcoholic called Hannibal. Erlendur knew something of the man’s life having taken pity on him when he found him slumped in public space in the depths of winter.
Now Hannibal was dead. Found drowned near some old peat pits and close to his last known abode inside a heating pipeline. Was it an accident as the police report seemed to suggest? No-one seems particularly to care: he was just a loner and a drunk; one of many on the streets of the city. No-one that is except Erlendur who wants to get at the truth before Hannibal’s death becomes another cold case consigned to the bottom of the pile. He conducts his own investigation, entering the world of people on the fringe of society, the homeless and the lost who congregate in the city’s squares and parks.
As he proceeds he becomes convinced there is a link between Hannibal’s death and the disappearance of a young married woman called Oddny. She’d gone for a night out at a local club but never made it home. Determination, thoroughness and an ability to sift truth from lies help him solve the case but not before Indridason has taken us down a few blind alleys.
As a prequel, Reykjavík Nights does a good job of introducing aspects of Erlendur’s nature which play out strongly in the later novel I read, Silence of the Grave. The older Erlunder is rather morose, a solitary figure who has difficulty forming relationships but also capable of compassion. In Reykjavík Nights he walks the streets of the city, dropping into graveyards for “peace and solace” ; an observer rather than a participant, but with a gift for getting people to talk to him. Not for him are “relentlessly hearty people” because “such forced jollity could quickly become oppressive”.
Instead he prefers to spends his free time at home listening to jazz or reading. Erlunder has been a collector of books since his teenage years, regularly visiting antiquarian bookshops in search of true stories “about human suffering in shipwrecks, avalanches or on the old roads that crossed the Icelandic wilderness.” He has a girlfriend – (later to become his wife) but it is clear that he is reluctant to commit to a deeper relationship with her until fate intervenes and forces his hand.
Mirroring Erlunder’s gloomy mood is the bleakness of the city where he works. For much of the novel, Reykjavík enjoys summer sunshine but as Erlunder reflects, there is another side to the city:
….so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate. Night after night he and his fellow officers patrolled the city in the lumbering police van, witnessing human dramas that were hidden from others. Some the night provoked and seduced; other, it wounded and terrified.
The story line edges on being pedestrian; progressing slowly and methodically without the aid of sudden revelations. But the plot wasn’t really my main interest in this book. I enjoyed it more as a character study of a young, somewhat idealist policeman who has a strong sense of what is right and wrong. For people who have enjoyed the series featuring the mature Erlunder, this is a good chance to take a step back and understand how he came to be the morose, lone 50-something detective with a broken marriage and drug-addicted daughter of the later novels.
The book: After eleven novels featuring the mature Detective Arnaldur, Indiridason began a new series that delve into the detective’s early, formative years. Reykjavík Nights translated into English in 2014 is the second of two novels focused on the young Erlunder (the first is The Great Match which is set even before Erlunder joins the police force). My copy of Reykjavík Nights was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
The author: Arnaldur Indridason worked as a journalist, freelance writer and film critic before publishing his first novel Sons of Dust (Synir duftsins) in 1997, putting him on the path to becoming one of his country’s best known writers. At one point, his novels were seven of the top ten books at the Reykjavik City Library. His novels have been published in 26 countries. His first book to be published in English was Jar City (aka Tainted Blood).
Why I read this book: it was recommended by Mary Whipple who blogs at marywhipplereviews