Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir: The Work of Arnaldur Indriðason
The publication of Arnaldur Indriðason''s Synir duftsins (Sons of Earth, 1997) was a considerable event in my life. In a review for Icelandic national radio I could not over emphasise my joy at seeing proper Icelandic popular literature finally emerging.
Arnaldur Indriðason is not the first Icelander to try his hand at crime writing, in the seventies and the eighties Gunnar Gunnarsson and Ólafur Haukur Símonarson wrote fine detective stories, but to a muted reception. But now it seems that Icelandic literary life has matured and is ready to recognise the importance of good Icelandic crime fiction, as Arnaldur Indriðason has followed Synir duftsins with four quality crime novels, each better than the last.
What immediately caught my attention was how well Arnaldur manages to place his story convincingly in Icelandic society, which, as the author points out in the book, does not lend itself readily to detective stories as Icelandic crimes are usually: "Horribly unexciting cases. Icelandic criminals are in the main rather hopeless". Despite this drawback Arnaldur Indriðason creates a credible plot, where he draws from Icelandic reality and American literature. (The Icelandic verse of poet Einar Benediktsson is mixed with the technological world of today, and the main bad guy is fittingly an enterpreneur like Einar Benediktsson.)
The story is thouroughly traditional in its structure and makes use of the formula of this literary genre to the full. Arnaldur Indriðason''s works most resemble Scandinavian crime fiction, and that is no shame, as Scandinavian detective fiction has made great strides recently. Scandinavian crime fiction is in part preoccupied with social realism, it is political and the stories are usually connected to various issues of the day. Arnaldur Indriðason''s works are, therefore, contemporary texts in that he tackles various social issues. The formula Arnaldur follows is based on the classic police couple, one is the boss who has seen it all, is tired and bitter, uneducated and often lets his intuition lead the way. The other is younger and more fresh faced, impulsive, well educated and well spoken. He wants to follow the rules and is very ambitious. Even though I particularly mentioned Scandinavian crime fiction, a coupling of this sort is an international phenomenon, and it is more the tone of the work that is reminiscent of the Scandinavians.
The plot of Synir duftsins is as follows: An elderly teacher is killed in a fire at the same time as one of his former pupils commits suicide in a mental institution. It soon becomes clear that the cases are connected and the detectives Erlendur and Sigurður Óli who investigate the teacher''s case and the brother of the mental patient reach, each in their own way, the solution to the case. Even though I claim the story to be traditional in structure, this is not an old-fashioned text, as Arnaldur goes straight for the latest trend in crime writing characterised by mixing elements from horror and detective fiction. The mad scientist, who has belonged to horror fiction since Mary Shelley and Frankenstein created their monster in 1818, has become ever closer to the criminal, as crimes change and are now linked to modern technology and science, not simple robberies and murders. Arnaldur Indriðason''s film knowledge is also apparent, but such mixture of genres has become increasingly popular both in literature and in film. Films also play another part in assisting the author in his task, because the credibility of his stories ? and the stories of other Icelandic crime writers ? owes its success in part to the fact the world of the detective story is very familiar to readers because of the huge amounts of films they have watched, and is therefore more acceptable than it was before. Added to this is increased news reporting from abroad, both concerning crime and the latest technology and science.
Arnaldur Indriðason''s second book was Dauðarósir (Silent Kill, 1998). The police couple Erlendur and Sigurður Óli from the first work are back, and this work also resembles Scandinavian crime fiction with the appropriate social realism and criticism. The plot starts innovatively when a girl''s body is found by Jón Sigurðsson''s grave. She is unidentified and it is clear she belongs to Reykjavík''s underworld. The search moves to the West fjords while tracing the girl''s background, but then it turns out the solution is to be found in Reykjavík with the appropriate complications. The author mixes in with the story thoughts on the status of the fishing industry, especially the quota system, and creates from this a fine conspiracy theory. On the whole the story is weaker than Synir duftsins, and lacks the force of the first one, perhaps mainly because the novelty has worn off, and Arnaldur Indriðason''s traditional approach to the detective fiction genre seems at times overly traditional. On the other hand, one would be right in saying that this traditional approach is a necessary beginning for the very young Icelandic crime writing tradition, perhaps it has to tackle the traditional form before independent execution can emerge. Icelandic crime writers have very little homegrown tradition to contend with, only a few not very well known texts from the first part of the twentieth century.
One should also not forget that it takes a certain talent to write within the detective fiction formula, a talent one should not underestimate. Popular literary genres are often condemned for being based on formulas, and evaluation of such works has often been prefunctory: here we have one more example of the formula. But formulas are themselves signifying tools, and meaning often lies in the repetition process, and in the placing of parts within a formula. In this way meaning can alter radically with tiny changes to the formula, and this meaning is obscure to those who reject the meaning making processes of the formula. One should also keep in mind that our ideas on originality are relatively recent, just two centuries old, and up until that time no art work was considered to be of any value if it did not follow a certain formula. The formula of detective fiction is fixed and is based on certain basic tenets that have to be in place if it is to work. Such a formula is not only a question of technique, it also requires insight and thorough knowledge. The structure of detective fiction is also a difficult process and to complete a good formula is more than many authors have managed.
In his third book Arnaldur Indriðason took time away from the detective fiction formula and tried his hand at a different genre, the thriller. Napóleonsskjölin (Operation Napoleon, 1999) is concerned with the precence of the American base in Iceland and the story''s time frame reaches back to World War II. In this instance it is a young woman, Kristín, who is the main protagonist, as she finds herself in the middle of a dramatic chain of events. Her brother is on a search-and-rescue exercise on Vatnajökull glacier where he stumbles upon American soldiers digging an aeroplane from the ice. He calls Kristín on his mobile but is later arrested. The mission turns out to be top secret and assassins are despatched to silence the sister. The plot is high quality conspiracy theory on the exercises in Iceland in 1968 of the American military preparing for the moon landing, which according to the novel was only a ruse to conceal the first attempted rescue of the same plane! Now, whenever I hear these moon exercises mentioned Operation Napoleon immediatly spring to mind. No less pleasure was the fact that the police couple from the other books have a cameo role, when Erlendur and Sigurður Óli are called to an incident where a dead man with a bullet wound is discovered in Kristín''s flat. It is exactly with references of this kind that the genre will assert itself.
Arnaldur Indriðason is on very good form in this book, the style is more fluent and the tone lighter, the story is flawless and the suspense is excellent. With Operation Napoloen he proves that he has a firm grip on style and form and moves this world credibly into Icelandic society.
In the year 2000 a significant event took place when during the ''Week of the Book'', with the literary nation itself, a serial detective story was chosen as the publishers'' gift to the public. Several crime writers got together and wrote the book Leyndardómar Reykjavíkur 2000 (The Reykjavík 2000 Mystery), one chapter each. Being rather raw and loose in its form, the story is a good result of the new crime fiction wave and it is truly amazing that in only three years a basis had been formed for a book of this kind. The joy of story-telling is very apparent, and the authors do not take themselves too seriously. It is highly enjoyable to see how these different authors manage to comform and harmonise with each other while maintaining their individual characteristics. It was also a great pleasure finally to see again a crime fiction text by pioneer Gunnar Gunnarsson in co-operation with the leader of The Crime Writers of Iceland, Kristinn Kristjánsson.
Arnaldur wrote, of course, a chapter in the book and displays a flare in his approach for the hard-boiled genre, and it is clear that he is quite capable of handling that form of crime fiction.
The Reykjavík 2000 Mystery hopefully resulted in the public getting to know these authors better and made them more responsive to Icelandic crime fiction, but the popularity of the Icelandic crime writing published in December 2000 was evidence of the increased status of the genre.
The publishers'' project in the ''Week of the Book'' in 2000 was not the only example of a display of goodwill toward crime fiction. The Reykjavík City Library played its part by organising a competition for an ending to a crime short story by Steinunn Sigurðardóttir.
With his fourth novel, Mýrin (Jar City 2000), Arnaldur confirmed that he is indeed Iceland''s formost crime writer. Everything comes together in this enjoyable story of a mysterious murder in a basement in Reykjavík. Erlendur and Sigurður Óli are back and at first the murder of the loner in the basement flat does not make sense, especially as regards mysterious messages left on a piece of paper in the flat which seem to be meaningless. But the intuition of the old fellow is as fruitful as ever and even though the investigation leads him on strange paths, it becomes rapidly clear that the case is far from simple. Mixed in are contemporary issues as before, and here Arnaldur Indriðason traces similar themes as in his first work with a discussion of bio-technology and genetics.
What is most important as regards the quality of this work is a continued development of the policemen who work on the case. It is highly enjoyable to follow these characters from book to book, but the development and life of the protagonists is what often breathes life into crime fiction. The main protagonist, the policeman, or private eye, or the one who suddenly has to take on the role of the detective, is very often the force that keeps the series alive. Thus the characters need to be interesting, and a good balance has to be struck between a certain stasis and a process, or variation. The reader wants his good old detective back, but he also wants to continue to get to know him, just like a good friend, get to know new sides to him and to discover more about his earlier and inner life. And not only the main protagonist, but also his co-workers and family, because all this matters when getting to know someone. The execution of this personal part is always the key to the longevity of a crime series of this kind.
It is precisely the way this formula is tackled and reworked that has been increasingly appreciated in literary and cultural debate in the last decades. With the arrival of my favourite crime companion, postmodernism, the status abroad of popular literarure has increased and debate on it improved. This is in part because the authors of so-called higher literature have discovered crime fiction and used its possibilities in narrative and narration. With this, literary authors have finally found a way to invigle themselves onto bestseller lists, but they have also learned from crime fiction, especially how to tell a story. Crime fiction has a disciplined and precise language, where various clues are given on the process and impending solution, and last but not least it is a tool to encourage discussion of various social issues without taking on the appearance of propaganda. That is why crime fiction has been a valuable tool in telling much more than the story of the crime: it draws a picture of society, not just of the individual and the investigation inevitably reveals various issues. Arnaldur Indriðason''s works are a good example how crime fiction can be used to debate and analyse the state of society.
Grafarþögn (Silence of the Grave, 2001) is one such crime story, tackling diverse and difficult social issues. There are two storylines, one is the present where a human skeleton is unexpectedly discovered in the foundations of a new building in Grafarholt in Reykjavík. Erlendur and Sigurður Óli are investigating how this unconventional burial came to be. At the same time we are led into a story that takes place during the years of the second world war, describing brutal domestic violence and desolation. A third narrative is also intervowen into the novel, and while the reader suspects that the bones have to do with the war-time story, he or she can not be certain. This is a really elegant story, and I have to compliment Arnaldur Indriðason particularly for a cool beginning: but the first scene descibes how a young medical student discovers that the toy a toddler is sucking on and gnawing is actually a human bone.
In 2002 Arnaldur Indriðason received the Glass Key for Jar City, which is a literature price for the best Scandinavian crime story. This not only confirms Arnaldur''s strong position within the field of Icelandic crime fiction, but indicates also that his novels are internationally competetive.
© Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir, 2002.
Translated by Gunnþórunn Guðmundsdóttir.
Shortly after this article was written, Arnaldur sent forward a new crime novel, Röddin (The Voice) which involves the same police team as the previous ones. Others have followed since then.Back