Saturday, October 03, 2009

Silence of the Grave

This second of Arnaldur Indriðason's crime novels (The sixth book, Hypothermia, has just been released in the UK) is a heartstring-tugger that gradually turns into a hell of a mystery.

It also marks the first consistent statement of protagonist Erlendur Sveinsson's (and his creator's) equivocal feelings about postwar Iceland and their place in it, a preoccupation that has remained through the subsequent novels:
"[Erlendur] had been born elsewhere and considered himself an outsider even though he had lived in the city most of his life and had seen it spread across the bays and hills as the rural communities depopulated."
The novel is a story of domestic abuse in the past and its echoes and consequences in the present, and if you even think of rolling your eyes, then you haven't read the book. Not only is Arnaldur unsparing in his description of the abuse, he has a character remark the woeful blandness of the term domestic abuse, its insufficiency to describe acts of such enormity. (I wonder that the Icelandic term is and what its connotations are.)

Arnaldur also has a way of investing crime-fiction conventions with resonance they lack elsewhere. The protagonist whose personality clashes, sometimes humorously, with a colleague's is one such convention. Here, a human skeleton uncovered under grimly humorous circumstances triggers the investigation. The burial, it transpires, may be decades old. For Erlendur, haunted in his personal and professional lives, the past is a constant presence. His colleague Sigurdur Óli is of no such gloomily poetic temperament:
"`All these people are dead and buried long ago,' Sigurdur Óli said wearily. `I don't know why we're chasing them.'"
Erlendur knows why.

(Here's what the Crime Writers' Association said when it awarded Silence of the Grave its Gold Dagger for best crime novel in 2005.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , ,

32 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

SILENCE OF THE GRAVE was my first exposure to his work. It's a wonderful book. The opening is funny in an awkward way, and perfectly sets upthe rest of the story.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've often used example as evidence against the proposition that Nordic writers lack a sense of humor.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Traditionally, life for Icelanders--if I were to make a sweeping generalization based upon my experiences there--grudgingly renders up opportunities for humor, particularly through irony. No one lives there without having an intense connection with the harsh power of nature and the fragility of life when subjected to that power. Arnaldur Indridason offers readers subtle glimpses into the ways in which "grimly humorous circumstances" constantly confront Icelanders. More than anything, I think, Icelanders appreciate irony (as humor) in murder because there is perhaps nothing more ironic than being murdered by another Icelander in a land in which the murderous weather is a constant and deadly adversary. The fishermen, the farmers, and even the city dwellers know that the murderous mother nature is always lurking. So, when someone is dispatched prematurely by someone else, Arnaldur's protagonist Erlendur knows as well as anyone else in Iceland that sometimes you just have to wryly smile about the circumstances. Then, like many Icelanders, you go have a drink, which can help you more comfortably accept all the "grimly humorous circumstances" in life in the Land of Fire and Ice.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One always hesitates to make generalizations based on tiny samples, but it sounds as if Arnaldur may be a fair representative of Iceland. This would not surprise me. I've noticed from the very first how rooted his novels are in their own country. Murder must also surprise Icelanders because it happens so rarely there -- a difficult state of affairs for crime writers, as Arnaldur has said.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I know I've banged on about this before but I think you might have to get into domestic abuse etc. in an Icelandic crime novel because there are very very few murders.

The surprising stat is at the end of this little quote:

"According to INTERPOL data: For rape, the rate in Iceland was 14.53per 100,000, compared with 1.48 for Japan and 34.4 for the USA. For robbery, the rate was 19.62 for Iceland, 2.71 for Japan, and 165.2 for USA. For aggravated assault, the rate was 18.16 for Iceland, 15.40 for Japan, and 360.5for the USA. For murder, the rate was 0.00 per 100,000 population for Iceland, 1.10 for Japan, and 6.3 for USA."

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, Arnaldur himself lamented during a panel at Bouchercon in Baltimore that Iceland's low crime rate made life difficult for Icelandic crime writers. R.T.'s comment and Arnaldur's books as well suggest that Iceland's weather and open spaces do a good enough job reducing the population without an assist from the residents.

Murder is often associated with -- though not blamed on -- social upheaval in Arnaldur's book: postwar upheaval in Silence of the Grave, immigration in Arctic Chill

Maybe the US would be better off if we got our ya-yas out reading violent manga instead of killing, robbing and raping one another.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If there are 250,000 people living in Iceland that means there were only 47 assaults in the whole country in a year. With zero murders and only 47 assaults per year, at what point does Icelandic "crime fiction" veer into the territory of fantasy fiction?

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It might be there already and if so, Arnaldur does some wonderful things with it.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Adrian numbers suggest that Icelanders might enjoy emigrating to Japan but would be foolish to relocate to the United States. This could also explain why Icelandair has relatively few flights between the U.S. to Iceland.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

I assume if you flew over the pole the flight to Japan would be quite short too wouldnt it?

Did you ever see Cold Fever? It's about a Japanese man visiting Iceland to find the spot where his parents died in an accident. Its a black comedy and was I recall pretty good.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Adrian, I remember making the flight several times to and from Iceland in the early 80s. It was one of the great airline experiences since the flight attendants were so pleasant and the alcohol flowed generously and without cost. Once I arrived at Keflavik's airport, like almost everyone else on the plane, I was sufficiently buffered against the wind and the cold by plenty of distilled antifreeze. I also remember that alcohol was dreadfully expensive in Iceland but many of the Icelanders seemed to find the kronur to keep themselves well protected against any sudden arctic chills. And--to get back to the subject--when I was there I never heard of any crimes in Iceland (except on the American-run NATO base, which tends to support your statistical comparisons).

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you mentioned fantasy, but Arnaldur's fiction suggests another genre: ghost stories, explicitly in the second passage I quoted in the comment, but elsewhere as well. Silence of the Grave also pays brief, unexpected and moving tribute to Mark Twain.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R. T. said...
Adrian numbers suggest that Icelanders might enjoy emigrating to Japan but would be foolish to relocate to the United States.


I don't think Erlendur would enjoy a city as crowded as Tokyo. By odd coincidence, though, the brief evocations of postwar life in Silence of the Grave reminded me of nothing so much as Akira Kurosawa's movie Stray Dog, though.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I don't know Cold Fever, but accidental deaths and, to a lesser extent, black comedy are right up Arnaldur Indriðason's alley, very much part of his world.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The alcohol flowed generously and without cost.

This reminds me of Shane McGowan's song "Streams of Whiskey."

R.T., though I've never been to Iceland and don't know much about what it's been up to since the thirteenth century, the rest of your comment buttresses my suspicion that Arnaldur is a sensitive observer of his own country. His use of the U.S. base is especially interesting in Silence of the Grave. And no, I will proide no spoilers.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I spent a couple of days in Iceland on a stopover from New York to Glasgow. I liked it. I'm not sure how I would cope with that much pixie cuteness 365 days a year though. I also couldnt cope with the breakfasts which were of the Swedish pickled fish type.

I've said it before here too, but I'll say it again anyway: Independent People is one of the best novels I've ever read.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If the United States produced Nobel Prize winners in literature at the same rate Iceland did, there would be, what, 1,000 of them here.

I must say that cuteness does not come across in Arnaldur's novels.

October 03, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

I looked up the stats once for an interview with Arnaldur in Shots and iirc I found there was something like a murder every other year. Given that Arnaldur tends to alternate a current crime with a long-ago cold case, he's pretty on target. Other than that in reality the every-other-year murder tends to be of the stupid bar fight variety, not the "how interesting, wonder who did this" type.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, that's one reason Adrian may have been onto something with his remark above about fantasy fiction. The lack of real-life killings give his imagination lots of space to medidate about the causes, consequences, connections and implications of fictional ones. Murder is an everyday reality in some countries, but a vast field of fictional possibilities in Iceland.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, do not forget also Iceland's rich literary history (especially in sagas wherein heroes and villains clash), which resonate through much of modern Icelandic writing, including (I think) Arnaldur Indridason's. Someday, perhaps, someone will embark on an academic, literary study of the connections; were I new to the academia game (i.e., a grad student), the challenge would be irresistible.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., Arnaldur has acknowledged the influence of the sagas on his prose style, and I have discussed Njal's Saga several times here. (The exasperating archaeologist in Silence of the Grave has the same name as one of Njal's chief sons.)

The laconic prose style of Njal's Saga gives rise to deadpan humor that would not be out of place in a humorous crime novel and may be related to Arnaldur's own occasional humor.

October 04, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

DBD's discussions about Arnaldur's novels have whetted my appetite for reading crime fiction set in a part of the world I must admit I haven't been too interested in reading about before. I've consciously avoided fiction set in lands associated with my ancestors for some reason, aside from Norse myths, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, Henrik Ibsen, "The Wonderful Adventures of Nils" and folk tales such as "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" (I love how this one ends: Snip, snap, snout. This tale's told out.)

Anyway, I'm now looking forward to Arnaldur's crime fiction. As for Scandinavian humor, I'd say from my experience of it within my family it does tend to be more dry, ironic, and self-directed than some ethnic humor. Example, all the "uff da" jokes out there.

Peter, I know you don't seem to like Michael Dibdin very much but there is a wonderful chapter, "Islanda," in "And Then You Die" in which the plane on which his detective Aurelio Zen is traveling (Zen is enroute to the US to provide a deposition) makes an emergency landing in Iceland. Zen, having slept most of the flight, wakes up, believing he is already in Los Angeles. Dibdin shows the reader Iceland through an Italian's eye and it's rather amusing. Icelandic food: "slabs of pallid fish or meat smothered in an anonymous sauce, with boiled potatoes and a scattering of shrivelled vegetables." Zen, like Salvo Montalbano is quite the gourmet/gourmand! One could read this chapter as a novella if the entire novel does not appeal.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I once had harsh words for some self-reference in Dibdin's Back to Bologna that grated on my nerves, but I also listed Cosi Fan Tutti among my favorite international crime novels in the very first Detectives Beyond Borders post. I also appreciated Dirty Tricks' unexpected setting: a language school, so I'm not sure it's accurate to suggest I don't much like Dibdin. A British author purporting to see Iceland with an Italian's eyes is a bold conceit, but then boldness of that kind is just what I praised Cosi Fan Tutti for.

Iceland has never topped by to-visit list, but thanks to Arnaldur, I feel as if I have visited there.

Tiina Nunnally, who will be on my panel at Bouchercon, has translated the Kristin Lavransdatter books. Any questions you'd like me to ask? And here's a bit about humor and Nordic crime fiction.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Yes, it was based on your comments re Dibdin's "Back to Bologna" (which I thought was a tour-de-force in its presentation of distinct voices for different characters) that led me to believe you didn't like Dibdin much. I know some readers think he was a bit precious but I think he was brilliant.

As you did like "Cosi fan Tutti" you might like to read the immediately preceding novel, "Dead Lagoon." Its style and mood is 180 degrees from CFT. At the end, Zen is left a broken man. This makes the style and upbeat tone of CFT all the more remarkable.

For a complement to Camilleri, you might enjoy "Blood Rain" (or did you read this one?) in which Zen is posted to the long-dreaded Sicily, to Salvo Montalbano's hometown of Catania. With the traditional Italian suspicion of the guy from the next province, you can imagine what the Sicilians thought of this aloof Venetian!

I hadn't made the connection between Nunnally and the Lavransdattar trilogy. Thanks for making it for me. Before I read her translation I had read one book of a previous (dreadful) translation. Knowing that Nunnally has translated many different Scandinavian books, everything from children’s books to crime fiction to the Lavransdattar trilogy, I think I’d be interested to hear how she avoids placing her personal stamp on other authors’ books. How does she maintain that delicate balance among translation, extrapolation, and interpretation? Is the voice/style of the to-be-translated author always strong enough to avoid this pitfall? What have authors objected to in her translations? Does she ever revise based on their comments? But then I guess these questions might just as well be relevant to the other panelists as well.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read Ratking, Vendetta, Dead Lagoon, Cosi Fan Tutti and Dirty Tricks (a standalone). Dibdin was actually one of my favorite international crime writers from the period just before I started my blog. Yes, the passage that I cited from Back to Bologna I did find precious. But I give him all the credit in the world for taking wild chances, and I think Clive James sold him short in his New Yorker article in international crime fiction. (He said Aurelio Zen took too long to get anywhere because Dibdin spent too much time finding every detail of the scenery fascinating in ways only a tourist would. This struck me as odd, since Dibdin generally avoided tourist sites, and it would take a particularly dedicated off-the-beaten-track traveller to go some of the places Aurelio Zen did. If Dibdin was that kind of tourist, well, so, vicariously, are his readers.)

I just heard from Tiina Nunnally this week, and she is open to discussion of her having taken her name off a translation because of editorial disagreement, so I think she might also be open to some of your questions. (She has done a new translation of Pippi Longstocking as well that makes some necessary updates and corrections, I am told.) Now, to get all that in, multiply it by four panelists, allow time for audience questions and get everything done in 55 minutes will be an even bigger challenge than pronouncing Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Dibdin was criticized by somebody (maybe C. James?) for pandering to his middle-class, armchair-traveling readers by setting each Zen novel in a different city or region of Italy. I thought this was a nasty, elitist point-of-view. Dibdin, an outsider looking into a nation and its culture (like Chandler, to whom he was often compared, thus the "too much time finding every detail of the scenery fascinating" remark) was a wonderful guide to Italy and Italians in a way that complements native-born Italian crime fiction writers.

I believe it was the annoying comparisons to Chandler (how many tiresome dust jacket blurbs have we read announcing that some new author was "heir to" or "writing in the manner of" Raymond Chandler?) that were in part behind Dibdin’s self-referencing in "Back to Bologna" that you found annoying. The bumbling Italian private eye wannabe with his mail-order trench coat, snap-brim hat, and Chandlerisms.

R.T.'s comment re imbibing Icelanders is echoed by Dibdin's Zen during his brief stay in the country that includes a pub crawl, there not being much else to do in Reykavik on any given night.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think Clive James brought up the class question in that article. Had he done so, I'd have reacted the same way as you did. Among my complaints about his overly broad assertion that

"In most of the crime novels coming out now, it's a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks"

was that vicarious travel was once a desirable goal of popular writing. Who is Clive James to say this is no longer the case?

I also did not like his patently disingenuous use of low-browish term coming out rather than appearing, being publshed or even In most current crime novels. He's a goddamned snob trying to pretend he's a man of the people. He has an acute eye, but is sometimes either deliberately provocative or else sloppy in his research.

I had not heard that frustration with tiresome Chandler comparisons might account for some of what Dibdin did in Back to Bologna. That sounds very much like something he might have done, and it makes me think the book might be worth another look.

October 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that I thought the gimmick of moving Zen around Italy a clever way to take advantage of a national police system of the kind not found everywhere. Zen may have been pandering to middle-class readers, but he found a clever and plausible way to do it.

October 05, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Clive James seems to assert (I hunted down his column with the source of that Zen reference) that "action" is what a crime fiction novel should be all about. Well, maybe some, but not all. But James tries to have it both ways, lauding Chandler who we know is admired today not for his "swiftly-paced action" or "meticulously plotted" (two cliches of the crime novel review) but for his style, scene-setting, and dialogue.

You're absolutely right; James is a goddamned snob.

And he's wrong about Zen and the overly-detailed landscape. In one novel, Zen notes that, unlike his American girlfriend who gushes over the Italian landscape, his idea of enjoying the Italian countryside is to see it from the window of a fast-moving train.

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James' saving grace in that article is his praise for Camilleri, and not just because I agree with him. For once, James' remarks had something to do with what the author was trying to do, and not what James imagined he was doing or thought he should have been doing.

Dibdin may, in fact, have looked at Italy in ways most natives would not, but so what? He wasn't a native, nor were most of his readers. James may sneer that most crime novels "coming out now" are guidebooks, but if those guidebooks are deftly assembled by sharp, imaginative guides, and if they show a visitor things he or she might not otherwise find, on what count do they fall short?

James may be confusing "crime novel" with "detective story" or whodunnit, but who can tell? I think he wants too much in that article to be thought a gentleman amateur, above doing research to examine his own impressions.

October 06, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Just finished reading the entire James column. I can never figure out why Donna Leon gets so much attention and Magdalen Nabb, creator of Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia, gets so little. James doesn't mention her at all. I think Nabb's books are superior in every way -- style, character development, mood, the Italian settings (generally in and around Florence).

Guarnaccia is an appealing character, a Sicilian policeman who goes quietly about his work in the Tuscan region he never seems quite at home in. He watches and listens. Like Leon's Inspector Brunetti, Guarnaccia is married. He has two sons.

Are female crime fiction writers more likely than their male counterparts to write about happily married detectives?

Back to James and his ilk. It's so tiresome to read what is supposedly a critical review of a book or an author's oeuvre and have it all wrapped in, as you say, "what [reviewer's name] imagined he was doing or thought he should have been doing." I "love" when reviewers just make things up to suit their narrowly framed thesis. I've read such nonsensical comments as "although Hammett may not have said such-and-such, this is what he meant."

October 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Enough people have talked up Donna Leon to me that I may have to read her one of these days. The last time someone mentioned her name, I asked if he had read Magdalen Nabb. He had not.

I've read just one of her books, and I didn't much like it, more because of the tone of the story than anything else. Parts of it have stayed with me, though. I don't remember the title, but I do remember a backward woman shut up in a house, and a hulking clodpate who lived in a mill.

My favorite happily married crime-fiction protagonist is Abe Lieberman, created by Stuart Kaminsky. Among my current reading, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Thóra is divorced, so there.

October 06, 2009  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home