Following in the frozen tracks of a beloved Icelandic detective
Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason talks about Erlendur Sveinsson, the fictional detective whose brooding style has earned him fans around the world.
Police Detective Erlendur Sveinsson walks these same streets all the time, I remind myself, avoiding yet another shard of ice on the frozen grey pavement. Raw Reykjavik in early March, trudging down the snow-packed side streets that run off of Laugavegur – Erlendur would be tracking down a crime lead. My appointment is far less gloomy. I’m meeting with the Arnaldur Indridason – Erlendur's creator.
The Icelandic author of the "Detective Erlendur" crime series published by Minotaur Press is well known to Nordic mystery fans. His 14 books in the series which debuted in 1997 have been translated into at least 24 languages and have earned him numerous awards including the Glass Key in 2002 for “Jar City” and 2003 for “Silence of the Grave,” The Gold Dagger in 2005, and in 2013 the RBA International Prize for Crime Writing.
Shaking the cold and damp from my shoulders, I enter a hotel lobby that looks at once familiar and inviting – much like a New England inn; claret red drapes and deep leather chairs, all very elegant and substantial.
Arnaldur – the Icelandic use first names – is a tall, unassuming, deep-voiced man. His choice of venue suits his demeanor. He weighs each question I pose as deliberately as he crafts his detective’s crime solving style – with an economy of words that belies a depth of acuity. It’s a style, says Arnaldur, that speaks to the core of what Iceland and its literary tradition, the Saga, are all about: storytelling that gets to the point with little fanfare. It's not surprising since the original sagas were written on cow skins, which left little room for flourish and re-writes.
The sagas, “just tell you the basic story in very few words and very effectively, brilliantly effectively.”
Arnuldur says it’s partly due to that solemn literary tradition that detective novels set in Iceland weren’t taken seriously until fairly recently. After all, 1955 Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness had set the literary bar for Icelandic authors pretty high. The idea of crime fiction being a serious topic for literature just seemed like a joke.
Add to that the fact that Iceland isn't exactly a hotbed of criminal activity.
“We have maybe one murder in two years and the crimes are committed by bicycle and some car thieves – nothing worth writing about in a crime story.”
But the appetite for crime fiction was there even if Icelanders didn’t think one of their own could pull it off. After all, Icelanders ate up British, American, French, and Scandinavian detective stories. When Arnuldur’s books and other local crime authors came out in the late 1990’s, the reception was gratifying. Icelanders liked what they read. Here was a new, enthusiastic audience that enjoyed reading about implausible events taking place in familiar venues.
Arlundur says that to convince an audience as demanding as his local readers is no easy task. Attention to realism and strong characterization aren’t negotiable. “The Icelander readership is very, very difficult. They won’t believe anything.”
Erlendur’s detective work is effective and his insights keen. But his private life is a mess. Divorced and with two estranged grown children, one of them drug-addicted and always on the brink of overdose, Erlandur is a complex and interior character who is driven to put right the felonies in his present because he can’t fix the calamities of his haunted past. He is plagued by guilt and self-questioning over the disappearance of his younger brother in a blizzard when they were children. And that’s just one of his problems.
Here is a man poised between his memories of a simpler pastoral youth and an uncertain and increasingly complex future. Erlandur is without doubt a Nordic character. But Arnaldur’s richly drawn portrayal of him speaks to universal themes.
Modern conveniences such as the internet, cell phones, and all manner of social media meant to create a sense of connectedness become burdens to a character like Erlandur; they are symbols of the isolation and detachment he can’t seem to get beyond.
“There are always those that are left behind in the development of the country, and Erlandur is one of those…. He just doesn’t connect to his times. I think he has that in common with many of his generation, that changes were just so fast that they didn’t find their footings.”
Using this backdrop of his character’s tentative approach to living in the present, Arnuldur deftly explores the big themes that are globally prevalent: domestic violence; drug addiction; rape; immigrant exploitation; and in Iceland’s case, cyber security risks to an entire country’s DNA database. This is the uneasy landscape Erlendur navigates as he tries to find the vanished and make reparation for the victims.
“Also, if you create a character [like Erlandur] that you want to know more about then in the next book you get a little bit more to know … it becomes an interesting series in itself.”
In this way, Arnaldur parcels out, book-by-book, bits of heretofore unknowns about his detective and so another mystery slowly unfolds along with the crime solving.
These are not stories of chase scenes and serial killers; they are about the quiet discoveries of character in extreme situations. And the thematic constant throughout this is the family.
“I think all my books are about families in some way … because I think family is … the cornerstone of what we have in our society. But there are so many break ups and so many things going on in families that are good and bad, and when I was first thinking about Erlendur I was thinking about this.
“It turns out he’s a very, very good policeman… a specialist on the vanishing; he can feel for the victims of crime and he will try his very best to solve the cases, especially of the vanishing.”
But despite his professional competence Erlandur’s family life withers. He’s not there for them and doesn’t know how to be. It’s a vanishing of rapport that has grievous consequences for all of them. “What does he take from life and what does he keep to himself? Why is he so closed?
“So Erlendur is stuck completely in time. Stuck in the evolution of Icelandic society, stuck in the evolution of his own life.”
Arnaldur says that each book takes him about a year to complete, “writing it, rewriting it, and making it publishable” as well as a busy exchange of emails with several translators.
His current crime series is a trilogy that introduces two new detectives, one an Icelander by birth and the other a Canadian soldier of Icelandic parents.
Set in the turbulent World War II years of 1940-1945, the vehicle of familial relations yet again plays out in the crimes committed in Iceland. This time the author explores the lasting impact made on Icelandic families and their culture in the wake of British and later American occupation by thousands of military troops. During that time, the uneasy liaisons between Icelandic women and British soldiers were noted as “the situation” by troubled Icelandic observers and repercussions of those days are still remembered on the island.
This latest series should reach US readers beginning in 2017.
Arnuldur says he is still in awe of Erlendur’s widespread appeal and popularity.
“It seems to me that everywhere I go … people have the same feeling for him. Everybody is the same, everywhere in the world. It’s been amazing how well he’s settled, how well he’s translated into other people’s thinking and lives.… It’s a brilliant, brilliant thing for me as a writer.”
Leaving the dark paneled warmth and richness of the interview, I once more steel myself for the biting March winds and drizzle. Retracing my steps back to Laugavegur, it occurs to me that Erlandur probably felt even colder on days like this, walking down these same streets. I don’t know why, but somehow I find this thought comforting.