Monday, October 27, 2008

The Draining Lake and its unique setting

Arnaldur Indriðason wrote this novel well before Iceland's financial crisis, but it shares concerns aroused by the bank crashes about Iceland's vulnerability as a small, isolated nation:

Kleifarvatn is both the name of a real lake in Iceland's Reykjanes peninsula and the novel's title in its original Icelandic. The lake is (or was), in fact, disappearing after an earthquake, and the book's stark, one-word title must have resonated strongly with readers in Iceland.
The vulnerability is not just physical. Iceland's small size also makes it harder for its people to hide, should they choose to do so. This quite naturally will play a large role in police investigations, perhaps complicating them:

I'd thought Arnaldur's Jar City (Tainted Blood in the U.K.) took better advantage of its setting than any other crime novel I'd read. Now I'll go one step further and say that Arnaldur has Iceland in his bones and that no crime novelist I can think of has ever written books so inextricably tied to their setting.
I'll also invite you to disagree with me, or at least to name your candidates for stories that could not have been set anywhere else.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
"`Can you get away with bigamy in Iceland?' Sigurður Óli asked.
"`No,' Ellinborg said firmly. `There are too few of us.'"

"`You remember the big south Iceland earthquake on the seventeenth of June 2000?' she said, and they nodded. `About five seconds afterwards a large earthquake also struck Kleifarvatn, which doubled the natural rate of drainage from it. When the lake started to shrink people at first thought it was because of unusually low precipitation, but it turned out that the water was pouring down through fissures that run across the bed of the lake and have been there for ages. Apparently they opened up in the earthquake. The lake measured ten square kilometres but now it's only about eight. The water level has fallen by at least four metres.''

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17 Comments:

Blogger Philip said...

What immediately comes to mind this day is the magnificent Navajo Tribal Police series of Tony Hillerman, who died yesterday at 83. And then, of course, the books that Hillerman often mentioned as having fascinated him in his youth and inspired his own novels: Arthur Upfield's superb Napoleon Bonaparte series set in the Australian outback, mentioned by Martin Edwards in a post on Saturday.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Peter, for me what came as a surprise in this novel was not the Icelandicness but the connections with East germany that I hadn't known about.
I was reminded of the book recently when I read SUCKED IN by Shane Maloney. A lake is being affected by the Australian drought and the water gets lower and reveals a skeleton.
http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/2008/10/review-sucked-in-shane-maloney.html

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

Arnaldur Indriðason is one of my favourite writers - interesting as I loved Draining Lake - though it does share similarities with a few other novels as I mentioned when I reviewed it [e.g. Peter Robinson's IN A DRY SEASON -

http://januarymagazine.com/crfiction/draininglake.html

As for novels with unique settings, well there are several, bit I'd nominate one of my favourites - Alistair MaClean's PUPPET ON A CHAIN set in Amsterdam. I read this as a teenager and since then I've been fascinated by thos wonderful city and everytime I visit it, I recall the novel -

Ali

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ali, I just glanced at your review, and I'll read through it once I've finished the novel, probably today or tomorrow.

I'll put "Puppet on a Chain" on my list, too. I've been to Amsterdam a number of time, and I'd be curious about the portrayal of the city. I'd want to see if the Maclean looks at parts of the city not often written about or takes fresh looks at one that are. Nicholas Freleng had a nice take on the Jordaan in one of his books, for example.

Janwillem van de Wetering's books are both idiosyncratic and about Amsterdam, but I think the idiosyncracy lies with the author and his outlook rather than with his portrayal of the city.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I've read several of the Napoleon Bonaparte novels. One of them in particular -- "The Sands of Windee," I think -- has such a strong feeling for the land that it probably fits nicely with with the question in this post.

Interesting that neither Upfield not Hillerman was native to the culture he wrote about. This may have intensified their reactions.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As for you, Kerrie, a full reply will have to wait until I've finished "A Draining Lake." The East German connection has emerged strongly at the point I've reached in my reading, but it has not yet played itself out fully.

I should probably wait until I've read "Sucked In" before replying to your discussion of that book as well. You may recall that I was unable to obtain a copy in time for the Oz Mystery Readers discussion, but I'd still like to read the novel.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if there's a sub-genre of mysteries about draining lakes. Arnaldur is attracted by buried skeletons coming to light. It would be interesting to see what other writers do with the theme.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

If one may expand this to other bodies of water, there is Reginald Hill's superb On Beulah Height: at the same time as a young girl disappears, a valley is flooded to make a reservoir and a village submerged. Years later, during a very dry summer, the reservoir is depleted, the village reemerges, and more girls go missing. How's that for a set-up?

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a fine and chilling set-up for what I've seen referred to as Reginald Hill's best book.

And Donald Westlake's Drowned Hopes reverses the situation, sending Dortmunder and his gang underwater to find treasure in a town that has been flooded to form a reservoir.

October 27, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Der Schimmelreiter (the rider of the white horse) by Theodor Storm is a famous novella set in Schleswig-Holstein, the flood-prone
region of Northern Germany.
Though it's more psychological supernatural than mystery.


My vaguely fantascientific v-word is biodipod.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

The plot of Helen MacInnes's The Salzburg Connection revolves around a chest of Nazi documents extracted from a lake in Austria.

I wondered if anyone had written a crime novel about the Hetch Hetchy valley submersion, but then you mention Westlake's Drowned Hopes, which sounds like a variation. The same drowning of natural beauty happened in Glen Canyon, Az, creating Lake Powell.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

More than vaguely fantascientific, I'd say. In fact, a plot even suggests itself: what goes wrong when mad scientists create a life form with two feet.

The best I can do with my current word is a Star Trek space pirate (unless one is French): quebeard.

Something about violent geographic events must be suggestive to crime and terror/supernatural writers. It's not hard to see why. The National Geographic article to which I link in my comment talks about Icelanders' "accustomed to their land being stretched, split, and torn by violent earthquakes and haphazardly rebuilt by exploding volcanoes." The article uses the phrase "draining lake," by the way.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If China were not China, perhaps the Three Gorges Dam project would have spawned a crime novel or two. Perhaps Qiu Xiaolong might take up the issue from his newish perspective outside the country.

"Drowned Hopes" is not quite about the submersion. Rather, the submersion is a set-up for the obstacle to recovering the treasure.

I just glanced at some material about John Muir and Hetch Hetchy. That would make a crime novel of a different kind, although explorers or prospectors might have hidden their treaure in an empty valley as in an upstate New York town.

A former boss of mine was from a town that had been submerged for a reservoir. I don't know if this affected his psyche.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

I'd tossed around the idea of writing a body in a diminishing lake novel - some of the hydro lakes around here have been getting a bit low with the lack of rain - but what-oh, there seem to be plenty of them out there already. Next idea ...

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or set yourxelf the challenge of making the setting as thoroughly a part of the story as Arnaldur does. In fact, the lake motif fades from the scene once the plot gets going, but it was not just an evocative but a highly appropriate and thematically consistent way to open the novel.

October 27, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The concept of the frozen lake seems to have excited twentieth century American poets to an extraordinary degree: Frost, Stevens, Kinnell et al. Perhaps in Canada where lakes are frozen longer it becomes part of the background and isn't noted so much?

October 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps it's a thawing lake that ought to excite the imaginations of Canadian mystery writers. Thanks to this blog, I am gradually discovering the crime writing of my native land, so perhaps I'll find that it has done so already.

Some years ago, a son of the former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau was killed in an avalanche while skiing. At the time, news reports said his body would have to remain where it was until winter's end. I wonder if spring thaws and melting ice found their way into Canadian crime writing at the time.

October 27, 2008  

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