VOICES, the third book by Arnaldur Indridason to be translated into English, is even better than the first two, and that's saying something, as SILENCE OF THE GRAVE, the previous outing for Inspector Erlendur, deservedly won last year's CWA Gold Dagger. Each book covers a narrower canvas than the previous one, but reveals and explores more of Erlendur's psyche. This increasing depth and focus is, for me, what makes this crime-fiction series among the most excellent I have read.
The doorman at a Reykjavik hotel is murdered in his basement room on-site, wearing his "part-time Santa Claus" outfit, just before Christmas. Erlendur and his team investigate the death of this long-term employee, whom his colleagues neither noticed nor liked, against the disapproval and even hostility of the hotel staff. Erlendur suffers a kind of seasonal paralysis, and rather than return to his empty, dingy flat at the end of the first day of the investigation, impulsively takes a room at the hotel – more to spite the manager than anything else. It isn't a nice room and the heating doesn't work, but it forms the nucleus for the story over the few days that follow, as Erlendur observes and absorbs the "voices" and rhythms of the hotel, and has to try to explain to various colleagues and his daughter why he isn't "home for Christmas", even though he is not fully aware of his reasons.
As Erlendur discovers more about the victim and the sad life he led, the title of the book becomes apparent. The "voice" of the victim, all-powerful as a child, has gradually diminished over the years until nobody knew or cared about the man he had become; his voice has, literally, disappeared. Simultaneously, Erlendur sinks into an introspective mood, triggered by the long-ago events and family dynamics he uncovers in the murder investigation. Driven by a hopeless urge to find a way to relate to Eva Lind, his tragic daughter, to prevent her falling back into her old life, he struggles to connect with the voices of his own past. Both for his daughter and for his hopes of a new relationship after his disastrous marriage and subsequent years of solitude, Erlendur is forced to relive a childhood tragedy, and acknowledge its effects on himself and his parents.
Another "voice" is that of a badly beaten boy, whose mother is in a mental hospital and whose short-fuse father is about to go bankrupt. Erlendur's colleague Elinborg is convinced that the boy's father is to blame for the attack, rather than the alleged perpetrators (some schoolboys), and has been trying to coax the silent child to speak out from his hospital bed. Will the boy find his voice and testify, or will the police team find his voice on his behalf, to protect him from the perpetrator, before the case collapses due to lack of evidence or witnesses?
None of the underlying themes and tensions in the book impede the pace. The story of the two crimes and their investigation are deftly handled, being believable and sad, rather than lurid and/or ultimately stretching credibility, like so many genre examples. Indridason is masterly in the way he makes the story of each crime suspenseful yet at the same time an elegy for sad and lonely lives of most of those involved. Part of the book's strength lies in the investigation of past emotional landscapes, which adds insight and emotion to what could otherwise, in terms of basic plot structure, be as shallowly exciting as Agatha Christie. The author (and his translator, who seems to have served him well) has written a spare, direct text, with dashes of grim humour and neat character observations, that slips by so that you have finished the book before you've noticed. But the voices will echo on, and you’ll be waiting keenly for the next instalment.