Sunday, January 27, 2013

“Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist,” or Who would you be in an Icelandic saga?

King Eirik Blood-axe should have the most delicious name in any story in which he appears, but that tenth-century Scandinavian king barely makes the top five in Egil’s Saga, and I still have a good bit of the saga left to read.

The rest of the top five? Thorvald the Overbearing is pretty good, but nowhere near Audun the Uninspired. But the two characters with the best names come from the same family: “Finn the Squinter, who was the father of Eyvind the Plagiarist.”

Epithets are more important in Egil’s Saga than in other Icelandic sagas I’d read previously. The title character, for example, is Egil Skallagrimsson. Egil is his given name, and the –son indicates that the surname is a patronymic. Egil’s father, that is, was Skallagrim. But skalla is yet another epithet; it means bald. The character’s name, then, means Bald Grim. (Skallagrim’s father, by the way, is Kveldulf, which means night wolf.)

The fun with names extends beyond what the author and translator could have intended. This bit:
“Harald Gormsson has ascended to the throne of Denmark on the death of his father, Gorm.”
allows readers to conclude that with Harald’s elevation, the Danish throne was now Gormless.

What would your name be if you were a character in an Icelandic saga?
My version of the saga was translated by the late Bernard Scudder, who also translated crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I can’t judge how accurate Scudder’s renderings are, but the poems sprinkled throughout the saga, usually improvised by Egil, are a good deal more readable than similar interludes in other sagas I’ve read.

Scudder was much missed in the crime-writing community when he died. I can see why. Like Don Bartlett, who translates Jo Nesbø’s novels from Norwegian in to English, Scudder knew how to produce, fluent, readable versions in English.
Read Egil's Saga in English (in an older translation) and Icelandic at the Icelandic Sagas Database.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No-nonsense openings then and now

My Nordic kinsman Thjostolf the Thinker is no great shakes as a farmer and too given to moody self-analysis to be a great warrior in the business world. An executive must feign passion where none exists, what most people call lying, and Thjostolf couldn't do it (though when a colleague, in the course of lighthearted office persiflage, called Thjostolf weak rather than morally upright, Thjostolf cleft him in twain, from collarbone to hip, with his great sword.)

One day Thjostolf suggested that similarities existed between the Icelandic sagas and the pulp and paperback-original crime fiction I sometimes read.

"Behold," he said, indicating the opening of Egil's Saga:
"There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless."
and "Dig this," pulling out his tattered reprint of Charles Runyon's The Anatomy of Violence:
"Each evening a twilight wind blows through Cutright City."
"And this," voice hushed, as he read from a text we both regard with near-scriptural reverence:
"Kells walked north on Spring.” * 
Thjostolf was right. In each case the author plunges right into the story, wasting no words. Arnaldur Indriðason, the best of the current Nordic crime writers, claims inspiration from the Icelandic sagas, though I edged toward the door as I reminded Thjostolf that Arnaldur attributed their concision to economic necessity rather than love of laconic prose. Ruminations, false starts, lengthy description, useless adverbs, and seventy pages of the hero dipping his madeleine in a cup of tea would have made a prodigious waste of calfskin, the expensive material on which the Icelanders set down their stories.

But Thjostolf just nodded and reminded me, in turn, that Josef Škvorecký once had a character suggest the Nordic sagas had inspired Dashiell Hammett. Škvorecký may have been taking the piss, but Hammett, the sagas, and punchy openings of the kind offered above will appeal to readers who like their stories brisk, their prose clean, and their humor deadpan.

Speaking of clean prose that wastes no words, I reminded Thjostolf, I have to get back to work on the copy desk. Thjostolf, who hates a bad sentence as much as I do, tightened his hand on the grip of his sword but said nothing. Maybe he'll make an executive after all.
* Fast One, by Paul Cain

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, May 25, 2012

Crimefest Day 2: Fire and Iceland

"You never hear anyone telling Norwegian jokes anymore, and I think it's because of the money," Swedish crime writer Åsa Larsson said during today's Crimefest 2012 panel on Scandinavian crime fiction.

"Now it's the other away round," Norwegian crime writer Thomas Enger replied. Norway's oil wealth has apparently muted at least one outward expression of Sweden's superiority to its neighbors.

But the panel was not all doleful observations and good-natured gloating. Gunnar Staalesen gave a plausible answer to a question I'd long had about Scandinavian crime writers: Why did Satanism and the fear thereof figure in a number of their crime novels in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star, Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil, and Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm (a.k.a. The Savage Altar) among them? Tursten appeared to take umbrage when I put the question to her a few years ago, apparently thinking I implied she had copied Nesbø. I implied no such thing, and I'll chalk Tursten's impatience up to fatigue from a gruelling tour schedule.

Larsson said a church figured in her book simply because, while secular now, she had had a religious upbringing; churches were simply a part of her background. But Staalesen suggested that a real-life wave of church burnings in the 1990s by a black-metal musician who wrote about Germanic neo-Paganism might have brought Satanism to the fore as an issue of public concern.

The intriguing thing about the resulting novels, at least the three I named, is that Satanism and satanists tend to be suspects and sources of fear rather than the actual villains of the piece. The books do not decry or praise Satanism, they merely take it up as one aspect of Swedish and Norwegian social and spiritual life.

I asked Staalesen after the panel whether an amusing, geographically specific metaphor for oral sex in the English translation of his 1995 novel The Writing on the Wall was an accurate rendering of the Norwegian original. He did not remember the line, which he'd have written seventeen years ago. But he did say the metaphor would work just as well in Norwegian as in English.

Finally, Ragnar Jonasson paid tribute to the trail blazed by his fellow Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. That Arnaldur did not publish his first novel until 1997 indicates how new Icelandic crime writing is. "Prior to that," Ragnar said, echoing a battle that crime writing has had to wage in a number of countries, "crime fiction was looked down upon by the public."
 The panel's moderator was Barry Forshaw, who really has written the book on Scandinavian crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 02, 2012

Nordic not-really Noir: The BBC documentary

(Cheerful blogger with non-
gloomy Icelandic crime writer
Arnaldur Indriðason)
Hat tip to Adrian McKinty, who posted a link to the BBC documentary Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction. A few comments:

First, the title. Alliteration to the contrary, none of the authors interviewed or discussed really writes noir, not Stieg Larsson, not Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, not in the books of hers that I've read, Karin Fossum. The central characters are not losers. The books are about anger, compassion, isolation, or resignation. They don't encompass the essentially noir emotion of depair. Gloom, yes. Doom, no.
Val McDermid noted the cold, gloomy landscape in Nordic crime writing and suggested this makes a wonderful stage for crime.  She gets no quarrel from me. Here's some of what I wrote about Arnaldur Indriðason in the book Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction:
"People disappear in Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland, but the soil has a way of yielding them up again. An earthquake cracks the land, drains a lake, and uncovers a body; a victim turns up on a construction-site excavation; in spring, corpses come to light in a lake, where winter ice had concealed all signs of their disappearance. ... The landscape swallows up victims, whether of murder, accident or natural disaster; geological disruption lays them bare again."
Iceland, says one expert interviewed for the BBC piece, is "a place where people can disappear." Rozovsky said it first.
I was glad to hear McDermid note that Arnaldur's books are shot through with "these dark and awful bits of humor." And I loved a remark from Håkan Nesser, always amusing in a way not normally associated with Scandinavians, that "We're not supposed to talk like I do, we're supposed to just sit there and stare blankly out into the, whatever, darkness."
The program offered lots of Larsson but also a bit of Ibsen, intriguingly citing the nineteenth-century Norwegian playwright as a prototype for Scandinavian crime fiction's tendency to explore the outward, social manifestations of inner trauma. Jo Nesbø, among the program's featured authors, numbered Ibsen among his influences when he spoke with Detectives Beyond Borders last year.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Friday, September 09, 2011

Win Arnaldur Indriðason's "Hypothermia"

Arnaldur Indriðason and
your humble blogkeeper
at Bouchercon 2008.
Here's a post that has nothing to do with Bouchercon. It's your chance to win a copy of Hypothermia, Arnaldur Indriðason's sixth Inspector Erlendur novel, to be released in paperback in the U.S.A. next month by the good people at Picador.

Among other things, the book offers a neat solution or two to the problem of maintaining what readers like about a series while keeping the narrative fresh.

I will send a copy to the first reader who answers this skill-testing question correctly:

What is the name of the unfamiliar letter in Arnaldur Indriðason's second name?
Liz in the Mid-Atlantic United States knew that the ð in Arnaldur Indriðason's second name is the letter eth (its sound is like that of the th in them.) She wins the U.S. softcover edition of Arnaldur's Hypothermia, a fine novel with a cool title. Congratulations, Liz.
Read all my posts about Arnaldur. And read my essay about him in Following The Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , ,

Monday, October 25, 2010

John Connolly, Scandinavian crime fiction, and me

John Connolly cited James Lee Burke during his Bouchercon 2010 discussion with Declan Hughes of "Ten Crime Novels You Must Read Before You Die."

Among other things, he said there are "two landscapes in crime fiction. One is psychological." In Burke's evocation of landscape, Connolly said, "We have kind of an association with Scandinavian crime fiction."

I was thrilled to hear that because I'd written about landscape in my Following the Detectives essay on Arnaldur Indriðason. Here's some of it:
"People disappear in Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland, but the soil has a way of yielding them up again. An earthquake cracks the land, drains a lake, and uncovers a body; a victim turns up on a construction-site excavation; in spring, corpses come to light in a lake, where winter ice had concealed all signs of their disappearance. ... `The setting is a character' is a commonplace in modern discussion of crime fiction; in Arnaldur, the setting is a narrative agent as well. The landscape swallows up victims, whether of murder, accident or natural disaster; geological disruption lays them bare again."
What other authors give landscape a similarly important role?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Following the Detectives is in my hands!

I can't review a book to which I contributed, but I can say that Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction manages the neat trick of offering information beyond the ostensible range of its subjects.

The book's core is twenty-one essays, each about a single fictional detective and the real city, country or region where he or she works. One of my assignments was Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland, for instance, but a full-page insert tells the reader about Arnaldur's fellow Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir as well. That sort of efficient conveyance of information is a good idea for a book whose other crime-fiction destinations include London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. Pretty hard to squeeze all the fictional detectives who call any of those cities home into a single essay.

The extras include maps, graphics, information boxes, guides to television and movie adaptations, walking tours, useful Web sites and, as an accompaniment to my essay on Andrea Camilleri, remarks on the history of Sicilian cuisine with explanations of some of Salvo Montalbano's favorite dishes. Pappanozza. Just the sound of it makes me hungry.

Here's a list of contributors and their fictional destinations:

Boston: Michael Carlson
Brighton: Barry Forshaw
Chicago: Dick Adler and Maxim Jakubowski
Dublin: Declan Burke
Edinburgh: Barry Forshaw
Florida: Oline Cogdill
Iceland: Your humble blogkeeper
London: David Stuart Davies
Los Angeles: Maxim Jakubowski
New Orleans: Maxim Jakubowski
New York City: Sarah Weinman
Nottingham: John Harvey
Oxford: Martin Edwards
Paris: Barry Forshaw
San Francisco: J. Kingston Pierce
Shropshire: Martin Edwards
Sicily: Your humble blogkeeper
Southern California: Michael Carlson
Sweden: Barry Forshaw
Venice: Barry Forshaw
Washington, D.C.: Sarah Weinman
Order Following the Detectives here (free shipping!), from the publisher, here, here, or from an independent bookseller in the UK or Canada.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, July 23, 2010

Swedish crime novel wins the International Dagger

Johan Theorin and translator Marlaine Delargy have won the 2010 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger for The Darkest Room. The prize follows the pair's 2009 John Creasey New Blood Dagger (best first novel) for Echoes From the Dead.

Thorin and Delargy beat out competition that included:
Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista, translated from the French by Emily Read.

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri, translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli.

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, translated from the Afrikaans by K.L. Seegers.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, whose correct placement of the apostrophe, in contradistinction to the novel's American edition, was not enough to secure a triumph over Larsson's fellow Swede. Reg Keeland was the translator.

Ruth Dudley Edwards won the Non-Fiction Dagger for Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing And the Families' Pursuit of Justice.

Visit the CWA Web site for other awards and shortlists announced today and links to more information about each.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eco chamber: Is your favorite crime series a closed text?

Patti Abbott and Gerald So have been blogging about The Hero, and not just any hero, but Superman.

Patti started it, paraphrasing Umberto Eco to the effect that
"a classic Superman story is 'closed,' in Eco's terminology, because it is designed to elicit a predetermined response — the mythological iteration of the Superman character. Therefore, nothing can happen in a Superman tale which advances the hero along the life-path: he cannot marry, reproduce or grow old."

"Has this held true with Superman comics?"
Patti asks. "Is he still catching bank robbers and stopping trains circa the nineteen forties? Or has he been free from his `closed' environment and allowed to do 21st century deeds? Has his character grown?"
Are your favorite crime series "closed"? Do their protagonists grow? Does the "growth" hurt the series or help it? Bonus points if you give examples of each.

Extra bonus points if you answer this question: Should Arnaldur Indriðason's protagonist, Erlendur, ever conclusively determine the fate of his missing brother?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is crime good for crime writers?

Does real violence inspire crime fiction?

Yes, says Ken Bruen, who said he "didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now."

Yes, say Roger Smith, who told Detectives Beyond Borders that "During the apartheid years, writing crime fiction in South Africa seemed beside the point. But now, sadly, South Africa is one of the most crime-ravaged countries in the world, and writing crime seems all too appropriate" and Wessel Ebersohn, who said: "If violence is what you want to write about, South Africa is the place to be."

Maybe, says Deon Meyer, who tells BOOK Southern Africa that "Real world crime (everywhere) is mostly sad, sordid, domestic, related to alcohol and drug abuse and tragic socio-economic circumstances. Crime fiction asks for intriguing, often sensational, always wrapped in riddles ... the sort of thing that is very scarce in reality."

Over in Iceland, where almost no one gets murdered, authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardòttir have said that such killings as there are tend to be similarly petty, a drunken brawl that gets out of hand, say. Maybe that's why they turn to history, geography, hints of the supernatural — and their own imaginations.

Smith, cited as exemplifying the proposition that real-world influence on crime fiction is decisive, filters that belief through a rich lens of techniques and influences from crime fiction, so there may be no one right answer.

What do you think? Does real-life crime influence crime writers? In what ways?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, March 12, 2010

Detectives between covers

Maxim Jakubowski, that man of exquisite sensibilities and wearer of many crime-fiction hats, is putting me in a book.

Following the Detectives, out from London's New Holland Publishers this fall, is a collection of essays about cities and regions around the world and the fictional detectives who bring them to life. I wrote the essays on Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland and Andrea Camilleri's Sicily, and let me tell you, that was not the most onerous work I've ever had to do. My fellow contributors include a bunch of people you ought to know, read and admire:

Boston: Michael Carlson
Brighton: Barry Forshaw
Chicago: Dick Adler and Maxim Jakubowski
Dublin: Declan Burke
Edinburgh: Barry Forshaw
Florida: Oline Cogdill
London: David Stuart Davies
Los Angeles: Maxim Jakubowski
New Orleans: Maxim Jakubowski
New York City: Sarah Weinman
Nottingham: John Harvey
Oxford: Martin Edwards
Paris: Barry Forshaw
San Francisco: J. Kingston Pierce
Shropshire: Martin Edwards
Southern California: Michael Carlson
Sweden: Barry Forshaw
Venice: Barry Forshaw
Washington, D.C.: Sarah Weinman

A dummy and sample pages will be on view at the London Book Fair next month, should you happen to be in the neighborhood, and Maxim says the book will be out in early autumn. Your Christmas shopping just got easier.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Don't hate me because I brood": Now with 60 percent fewer words!!!

Someone remarked recently that Nordic crime novels tend to feature whiny male detectives. I suggested that morose might be more accurate than whiny, and someone else added that Nordic crime fiction offers whiny female detectives, too.

Yet another observer offered the off-hand but accurate observation that a Nordic crime novel is likelier than an American one to include immigration as a major theme.

It would be a shame if anyone thought they knew what they were getting with Arnaldur Indriðason, though, just because he has that odd letter in his patronymic and because his protagonist lives alone in a cold country and broods occasionally and eats lots of lamb. He is a remarkable writer.

(Read all my posts abour Arnaldur here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Arnaldur's latest, plus reasons to be thankful, Part I

I've just started Arnaldur Indriðason's sixth Inspector Erlendur novel to appear in English, Hypothermia, and I hope you'll forgive me for calling that a very cool title. Here are a few bits of the first chapter:

"She drove over Mosfellsheidi moor where there was little traffic, just the odd pair of headlights passing by on their way to town. Only one other car was travelling east and she hung on its red rear lights, grateful for the company. ... Karen was aware of the mountain Grimannsfell to her right, although she couldn't see it ... The red lights accelerated and disappeared into the darkness ... She had difficulty identifying the landmarks in the gloom ... "
What kind of story does that remind you of? Yep, me, too, and sure enough, after poor Karen discovers her friend's body, here's an investigating detective at the scene:

"He walked over to the shelving unit and noticed the brown leather spines of five volumes of Jón Árnason's Collected Folk Tales. Ghost stories, he thought to himself."
I don't know yet if ghosts will figure in the story, but Arnaldur sure knows how to create atmosphere, doesn't he?
On a more earthly plane, the Rap Sheet's J. Kingston Pierce offers a longish list of things he's grateful for as the United States heads into Thanksgiving Day. He saves for last a sentiment with which I agree wholeheartedly:

"Let me voice my appreciation, too, for the authors and critics who have made me feel welcome among them. ... I’ve been looking during my entire earthly existence for what sociologists would call `my tribe,' the folks among whom I fit best. I thought that tribe was made up of journalists, the professionals I trained with and learned from for so many years. But the fact is, I might have been looking in the wrong place. Turns out, where I feel most at home is in a crowd of crime-genre fans, all of whom have traveled the same dark (fictional) thoroughfares over which I’ve trod in my mind for decades. I hope to see you all again next October in beautiful San Francisco."
Amen, Jeff, and thanks, crime guys and gals. You've made my year. Happy Thanksgiving.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , ,

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: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Voices: Arnaldur Indriðason's parallel inner lives

Yesterday I compared Voices unfavorably to Arnaldur Indriðason's other novels about Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Today I'll highlight some of the good things and talk a bit about what I think Arnaldur was up to in that book.

I wrote that the novel's constricted setting (almost all the action happens inside a Reykjavik hotel) de-emphasizes the connection with Iceland and its soil that is usual in Arnaldur's books. But this does not preclude his customary wry observations about his country and, given the hotel setting, about its visitors,
"Tourists who were planning to spend Christmas and the New Year in Iceland because it seemed to them like an adventurous and exciting country. Although they had only just landed, many had apparently already bought traditional Icelandic sweaters, and they checked into the exotic land of winter."

There is Erlendur's spare, pointed retort to a hotel manager more concerned about business than about justice:

"I hope you're not disturbing my guests," he said.

Erlendur took him to one side.

"What are the rules about prostitution in this hotel?"

And there is Arnaldur's delightful deadpan slapstick. Here, Erlendur's investigation has him interviewing a prostitute whose stitches from her recent eye-catching breast-enhancement surgery are bothering her. The manager sees Erlendur and the woman, misinterprets their meeting, and tries to throw the woman out:

"Watch her tits!" Erlendur shouted, not knowing what else to say. The hotel manager looked at him, dumbfounded. "They're new," Erlendur added by way of explanation.

One reader complained here that the victim in Voices was especially pathetic and therefore less interesting. I think this is due to Arnaldur's narrow focus on the victim. Furthermore, he also focuses in more detail than usual on Erlendur, and the two characters form a pair of solitary bookends.

I respect Arnaldur for choosing bravely to turn his back on interaction, the stuff of which most novels are made, and concentrate so heavily on the victim's and Erlendur's parallel inner lives. I just don't think it works as well as his other novels do. It will be interesting to see if he tries this strategy in the future.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Indoors and out in Arnaldur's Iceland

I've been reading more of Arnaldur Indriðason, one book that I think is his weakest, and another that seems likely to be up there with his best.

The weaker book is Voices, and I believe its weakness stems from its reliance to a greater extent than Arnaldur's other books on melodrama. More than usual as well for Arnaldur, the action, the pivotal events especially, happens indoors.

The site is a Reykjavik hotel where an employee has been found murdered and where Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson stays for the course of the investigation because he does not feel like going home. The employee is an ex-hotel doorman and holiday Santa and a former child star with a number of financial, personal and family entanglements.

In The Draining Lake, Silence of the Grave and Arctic Chill, bodies are found outdoors. In the first two, especially, this reinforces the intimate connection with Iceland and its soil that is the most distinctive feature of the Erlendur books. In Voices, everything happens inside, and the melodrama has to carry the book. This melodrama is sharper, sadder and more affecting than most, but I miss the connection with the land.

The connection promises to be present in Silence of the Grave, second of the five Erlendur novels and winner of the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger in 2005. As in the superb Draining Lake, Iceland's soil yields up the body that sets the story in motion. Here, its discovery is odder and funnier:
"He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."
At least two of Arnaldur's characters share their names with characters from the Icelandic classic Njal's Saga. Arnaldur has said the sagas influenced his prose style. Perhaps they influenced him in other ways as well.

On the other hand, Iceland is a small, historically homogeneous society. Perhaps it's no surprise that traditional names are especially prevalent. The names Arnaldur gives his characters may be no more significant than those of fictional characters such as Hieronymus Bosch or Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, September 18, 2009

Enough with the jokes

Last week I promised a post on small ways Arnaldur Indriðason articulates big themes. Here's one example, from the opening pages of Arctic Chill, where police are at a loss for information about a murder victim:

"Could be Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese," Sigurður Óli reeled off.

"Shouldn't we say he's an Icelander until we find out otherwise?" Erlendur said.
Later, Arnaldur puts these words in the mouth of a character who is not quite the anti-immigrant yahoo he seems at first:

"I've got nothing against immigrants ... But I'm against changing everything that's traditional and Icelandic just to pander to something called multiculturalism, when I don't even know what it means."
This character expresses revulsion at crimes against immigrants and full support for government programs to help integrate newcomers into Icelandic society.

One character says: "This is all so new to us. Immigrants, racial issues."

Another muses on the problem of immigrant children who refuse to integrate: "Same problem with the Icelanders living in Denmark. Their children refused to learn Danish."

Finally, any number of crime writers might have delivered lengthy exposition on the dreary conditions under which immigrants live. Here's how Arnaldur does it: "Erlendur was astonished there was no lift in such a tall building."

No diatribe, no ringing indictment. Instead, Erlendur and his creator, in their customary manner, making a heartfelt effort to understand their country.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Icy jokes

Let's put to rest for good the base canard that the Nordic peoples are dour. Sure, they commit suicide a lot, and those long winter nights let them do so under the cover of darkness. ("`It was about eight o'clock,' she said. `Still pitch black, of course,'" runs one off-hand but telling bit of dialogue in Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill, italics mine.)

There are no knee slappers in Arnaldur's novel, but there is plenty of wit from this artful Icelandic crime writer. Here's the closest the book gets to a bawdy nudge in the ribs, protagonist Erlendur Sveinsson and his girlfriend, discussing whether two formerly married partners can find true love:

Perhaps, says the girlfriend. "Yes," says Erlendur, "but what if one of them finds this true love at regular intervals?"

In a similar vein is another joke that may not even be a joke in the original Icelandic but works nicely in English. A well-dressed colleague of Erlendur's is knocking on doors questioning neighbors the killing that has set the story in motion. One of the neighbors mistakes him for a Jehovah's Witness and politely but firmly closes the door in his face. He knocks again and, when the woman she opens the door a second time, says "You haven't heard the news, have you?"

"The news" is the killing, and "You haven't heard the news?" is a sly, amusing reproach to a woman who thinks she has just shut the door on a Christian proselytizer.

More tomorrow, perhaps, on small ways Arnaldur articulates big themes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, September 07, 2009

Significant names plus a question for readers

Yesterday I awarded a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason's The Draining Lake to a reader who knew that the name of Arnaldur's protagonist, Erlendur, is also an Icelandic word meaning foreign.

The coincidence struck me and not just because Arnaldur occasionally writes about Iceland's uneasy accommodation of its recent immigrant population. More to the point, Erelendur is not always at ease in his own country. Thus, I thought, his name may be thematically significant.

Imagine my excitement last night when I read the following, in Arctic Chill, about a boy named Niran:

"`Niran,' Erlendur said to himself, as if to hear how the name sounded. `Does that mean anything in particular?'

"`It means
eternal,' the interpreter said.


"`Thai names have literal meanings, just like Icelandic ones.'"
Niran is nowhere to be found at this point in the story, and his brother has just been found dead, likely the victim of a stabbing. Eternal is a bitterly ironic name for a child who at this moment may be anything but, just one more piece of evidence that a name is more than just a name for Arnaldur.

(Arctic Chill was short-listed for the 2009 CWA International Dagger Award for best translated crime novel. The award went, as this award often does, to Fred Vargas and translator Sîan Reynolds, for The Chalk Circle Man.)
And now your question: You've just met characters whose names mean foreign and eternal. Both these names are at least partly ironic. What other characters have significant names?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Win The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Nothing in the opening pages of Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill dissuades me from my opinion that Arnaldur is one of the world's best crime writers — a master at portraying setting and conveying emotion through spare, thematically powerful details.

Now, thanks to the good people at Picador Books, one fortunate reader can win another of Arnaldur's novels, The Draining Lake, the fourth Inspector Erlendur mystery.

The protagonist's name is also an Icelandic word. Tell me what that word means, be the first to send the correct answer ...

(Here's what I wrote last year about The Draining Lake.)


A reader from the great state of Texas knew that Erlendur, the name of Arnaldur Indriðason's protagonist, is also an Icelandic word for foreign. A copy of The Draining Lake will be in the mail next week. Congratulations.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: , , , , ,