NOT YOUR USUAL SUSPECTS

A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments! and often have guest bloggers.

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Julie Moffet . Clare London . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A. Miller . Marcelle Dube . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Murder in the Land of Ice and Fire

Reykjavik

"Language most shows a man, speak that I may see thee." 

Ben Jonson  

I first came across the above quote in a Renaissance drama class, many years ago, and although I've forgotten most of what I read in that class, I remember this quote. For me, it's one of the big truths, up there with death and taxes. Jonson might have been speaking on a personal level, but his dictum works on a larger scale.

To really understand a country, listen to its stories.

Which is why whenever I travel to a new place, I read--or at least sample--its literature. Last year when I learned that our European vacation would include two days in Iceland, I discovered the Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason and his fictional detective Inspector Erlendur.

Leif Erikson glares down on Reykjavik 
The first Erlendur novel I read was Silence of the Grave. I was hooked on the first sentence:
He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.
It's a powerful image--superficially a pleasant if mundane picture of daily life, but the underlying truth reveals its hidden horror. To me, this is an essentially Icelandic sensibility--the juxtaposition of the everyday with the monstrous.

Kind of like Erlendur himself.

Erlendur is one of those characters that is inexorably connected to his place of birth. Sherlock Holmes is British to the bone. Jay Gatsby is the eternal American, inventing and reinventing himself. To compare, Poe's French detective Auguste Dupin possesses a certain universality. It's not hard to imagine him chasing orangutangs in London or New York.

Erlendur can only be Icelandic.

 In that spirit, I'd like to share some of my observations about Iceland, and how they connect to my new favorite fictional detective.

First, Iceland is aptly named!
The Unforgiving Land
I read somewhere that hell was cold, but Iceland's colder. True, I've lived in the Sunshine State of Florida for years and so my blood is probably as thin as diluted sweet tea, but even a hardy Canadian would blanch at Iceland's frozen fury--it is a killing cold, as the Icelanders know all too well.

Meet Otti, the alley cat
Some furball, huh?





Iceland's cold is unforgiving. One mistake, one misstep, and you're staring into the abyss. As a child Erlendur lost his brother in a blizzard, a loss that has haunted him all his life.

Only loss doesn't begin to describe it.

In fiction, as in real life, character is developed by what is experienced--one's parents, friends, schools. But it is also influenced by what has been lost or even what never was. A child whose mother died while giving birth doesn't actively mourn someone she has never known, and yet that absence influences all that is to come. With painstaking care,  Indridason peels away the layer after layer of Erlunder's personality, finding at the core the catastrophic loss of his brother. Perhaps that's why he is obsessed unexplained disappearances.

 Iceland is one of the most geologically active places on earth. Volcanoes spew, geysers spit, and earthquakes shudder--the land is alive and it bites.
Strokkur Geyser

Indridason uses this to great effect. For example,the action in The Draining Lake begins at Lake Kleifarvatn, which is mysteriously disappearing. As its waters recede, a 30-year-old skeleton with a hole in its skull is discovered. Sounds like a job for Erlender.
Putrified shark--it's what for dinner!

Icelanders eat putrefied shark. 
Iceland's national is Hakarl or rotten shark. I find it difficult to believe that anyone enjoys eating decomposed shark meat, but they do eat it. I think (hope?) it has more to do with honoring their ancestors, who ate anything and everything that could be eaten--cod, whale, puffin, and rotten shark.
As for Erlendur, he likes plain Icelandic fare, and is particularly fond of a nicely boiled sheep's head.


Icelanders love their cars. 
Before traveling to Iceland, I was puzzled yet oddly touched at Erlendur's affection for his  car--a late model Ford sedan. I thought this an idiosyncratic flourish by Indridason--why else write passages in which the detective rhapsodizes over his new used Ford? Imagine my surprise when the driver of our tour bus exclaimed over the microphone, "We love our cars in Iceland--if an Icelander says otherwise, he's lying." I don't think he was joking--this declaration was unsolicited and apropos of nothing. So what I thought an eccentricity was a national trait. I guess it makes sense. Long, lonely roads connect isolated towns and so a certain affection develops between a person and her car, but still...

They're just one big happy family! 
Around 320,000 people live in Iceland and  most of them have common ancestors. Just about everyone is related to everyone else, at least distantly. I guess it's nice to be able to claim Björk as a relative, but dating presents certain problems. (Luckily, there's an anti-incest app for that. I bet it's busy on Sunday morning.) But this shared history is what makes this country so vital.

Yes, Iceland is place of natural wonder and beauty, but the real miracle of Iceland is its existence. It is a miracle that those early founders survived. By every natural law, they should have perished. They possessed a tenacity to live another day, to stay alive.

Þingvellir--the heart of Iceland



 Erlendur is a deeply flawed man. He's stubborn and selfish, as all obsessed people are. He was a terrible husband and a worse father, but now struggles to reconnect with his estranged children, who bear the scars of his neglect. But that doesn't  mean that Erlendur is unfeeling. He feels deeply but in a hard land like Iceland, sentiment is best kept hidden. In his own plodding way, and with the tenacity of his ancestors, he strives to do right.

Whether that means bringing a killer to justice or finding his long lost brother's body.

These books are not for everyone, but if you're in the mood for something dark and complex, give them a try.

Bye, Otti!

6 comments:

Cathy Perkins said...

Interesting post.
I've always felt that way about books set in the South (and wow, can you tell the people who just plot their story into that setting). Recognizing the national or regional insights/idiosyncrasies/influences makes the connections stronger and offers both important insights and a great reminder to step back and examine the nuances.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks for the post, Daryl. I've always wanted to go to Iceland--honestly, I think I would feel at home there, since I live in the Yukon and I know cold. I'm not really into dark mysteries, but I will try Indridason, based on your recommendation. Now, did you see any trolls while you were there?

Anne Marie Becker said...

I found your post fascinating in so many ways, Daryl. Thanks for sharing what you discovered about Iceland and Erlendur. The stories sound so interesting!

Maureen A. Miller said...

Oh, I loved this post, Daryl! I wish I could go to Iceland. It looks beautiful!

Rita said...

I read that when it first came out. As I recall it's a bit different voice, POV. Perhaps because it was dark and European. I also think it was translated. Will have to go back and check. I think it was the top European mystery when it came out.
Those I know who have visited Iceland love it. It's certainly a place to get away from it all.

jean harrington said...

One of our most fascinating blogs, Daryl. I too am a Floridian and shudder at the thought of that Icelandic cold, but loved reading about it. Thank you.

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