Indridason, Arnaldur – ‘Black Skies’ (translated by Victoria Cribb)
Hardback: 336 pages (June 2012) Publisher: Harvill Secker ISBN: 1846555817
In a book first published in Iceland in 2009, but set in 2005, the black skies of the title are gathering not only over some of the characters but also over a falsely confident country as virtual money is borrowed, loaned and re-loaned in an incomprehensibly complex international pyramid. Those in Iceland working in or associated with the financial industry are benefiting, with people routinely owning two or three houses, a couple of four-wheel drives and thinking nothing of hiring a prestigious chamber orchestra for a house party – all, of course, on 100 per cent credit.
In pre-crash Iceland, police detectives such as Sigurdur Óli can only wonder why they are missing out, as they deal with society’s detritus – drug addicts, dealers, violent thieves, the homeless, the mentally ill who have been abandoned on the streets – criminals and victims alike. Sigurdur Óli, along with Elinborg, is a senior detective in the team led by Erlunder. He’s a priggish, rigid character who finds himself dealing with extra cases while Erlunder is away (on a seemingly ominous personal trip) and because Elinborg is working on the case described in OUTRAGE. (BLACK SKIES is set during the same time period as OUTRAGE.)
One such apparently tedious case is that of Anders, an addicted derelict who regularly appears at the police station, incoherently babbling about an evil man who has made him suffer in the past – in ARCTIC CHILL, the detectives thought that this mysterious man might be responsible for the death of a young boy, but in the event he was not. Since then, Anders has been hanging around – and though Sigurdur Óli has little sympathy for his type, he finds himself unaccountably moved by Anders and does his limited best to discover what the man is rambling about, and thus to help him. This story continues as background throughout BLACK SKIES, providing a route to personal redemption for Sigurdur Óli, should he choose to take it. (Anders’s story is also lightly intertwined with the as-yet untranslated first book in this series, whose title in English is SONS OF DUST.)
The plot proper is kick-started when Patrekur, an old school friend, contacts Sigurdur Óli and asks him for some discreet, unofficial help. Patrekur’s sister-in-law, an aspiring politician, and her husband have been involved in a “wife-swapping” circle, and are now being blackmailed by one of the women involved. Convinced that he can sort the matter out quickly, Sigurdur Óli visits the woman, but blunders into the scene of a brutal attack. He tries and fails to apprehend the criminal – and then has to call in his colleagues and explain to them what he was doing at the house.
The author matches his protagonist with his plot very cleverly. Sigurdur Óli is the type of person who thinks he knows better than his colleagues, so rationalises that he can continue to dig around without telling them the details of his friends’ embarrassment. Hence the official investigation is hampered, continuing in parallel with Sigurdur Óli’s interference until matters come to a point where he can no longer ignore what is staring him in the face.
The reasons for the defensive, judgemental personality of Sigurdur Óli are gradually revealed as the book continues, via his relationships with his parents, friends and soon-to-be-ex partner. It is a tribute to the author that the character becomes sympathetic by the end, as he explores and becomes more honest with himself about all these aspects of his life, as well as about his professional ethics.
Of course, an author as experienced as Indridason never forgets that he’s writing a crime novel first and foremost; the plot is a satisfying and topical one. It is well-paced, as Sigurdur Óli’s and the official lines of enquiry obscure each other until they merge; the story then takes a sudden new direction – which is when the author fully gets his teeth into the financial cowboys (“the new Vikings”) that have wrecked his country’s economy and the lives of many of its citizens. Yet the author also provides us with an excellent character study of Sigurdur Óli, whose arrogance at the start of the book gives way to some personal insight and maturity by the end, partly by his new willingness to examine his relationships with friends and family, but in particular via the tragic case of Anders. Brilliant stuff.