A skeleton is discovered in the bed of a lake that is drying out after an earthquake has caused some seismic disruption. The body is accompanied by old Russian recording equipment; clearly the person did not die recently or have a natural death. Many policemen would not be interested in solving such an old crime, but Inspector Erlunder's boss has no hesitation in calling him back early from holiday to investigate. (Erlunder is the kind of person who has a holiday on his own in his flat and begins to miss work on about the second day.)
Erlunder and his team soon run out of leads as they chase up all the people reported missing in Iceland 40 or 50 years ago, but find no link to the victim in the lake. Erlunder can't let go, however, and visits a succession of embassies in a hilariously droll series of interviews with minor and major diplomats to try to make sense of the discovery. At the same time, one of the missing-persons cases intrigues him: a salesman called Leopold failed to return home to his lover one day, leaving his car outside a station. Erlunder is intrigued by the woman and the effect on her subsequent life of Leopold's disappearance, perhaps reminding him of his own lost brother or his daughter, the wayward Eva Lind. He follows Leopold's tracks to the farm where he was supposed to pay the last call before he disappeared, and follows the trail of the missing car, a Ford Falcon.
The interplay between the detectives is drolly portrayed, with Sigurdur Oli as smug and rigid as ever – until his own personal happiness is threatened – and Elinborg is obsessed with her cookery book which is being published and publicised in parallel with the investigation. Erlunder himself becomes momentarily sociable, attending a party in honour of the author, almost relating to his son, Sindri, who seems by far the best adjusted of Erlunder's family, and tentatively proceeding with his relationship with Valgerdur, whom we met in Indridason's previous book, VOICES.
But the special beauty of the book, and the reason for its haunting quality, is the story of Tamas, Ilona and the group of students who study together in Leipzig in the 1950s. They are young, idealistic communists who have been selected by the party for further education – the children of workers and farmers who are the vanguard of the new post-war Soviet utopia. Their story is told by one of the group in flashback, as Erlunder's investigation comes inexorably closer. The euphoria of youthful dreams of changing the world for the better, the gradual but total crushing of belief, and the exposure of the corruption and cruelty at the heart of the system are brilliantly told. As the detectives discover, East Germany pursued almost total surveillance of its citizens: the Stasi had 97,000 employees who spied on the populace with the help of more than 100,000 active but unofficial collaborators; 1,000,000 people provided the police with occasional information; reports were complied on 6,000,000 people; and one department of the Stasi had the sole function of watching over other security police members. THE DRAINING LAKE is a satisfying mystery novel by a superb author who has no need of a high body count or special effects to create an exciting and compelling story, but above all it is a moving account of the human cost of these horrifying statistics.