REVIEW: Arnaldur Indridason’s REYKJAVIK NIGHTS, Darkness In Light

Reykjavik_NightsMiss Bates read Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights as a rom palate-cleanser. (Eons ago, when her genre reading was crimefic, she read Indridason’s Jar City and Silence Of the Grave. They’re fabulous books; Miss Bates highly recommends them.) To return to Indridason’s latest Erlendur mystery, Miss Bates was surprised to find how poignant it was and even more surprised to find herself identifying with the detecting character.

Reykjavik Nights is Indridason’s tenth Erlendur mystery; it serves as a prequel to the previous nine. In it, Indridason explores what made Erlendur the man we met as a seasoned detective in earlier books. Indridason brings Erlendur full circle in this latest, having resolved the childhood incident that plagues him in Strange ShoresReykjavik Nights introduces it. Miss Bates read Reykjavik Nights in two keys: in the major, as a detective’s bildungsroman; and, in the minor, as a study of one of crime fiction’s great introverts. An introvert herself, Miss Bates saw in the youthful Erlendur the signs pointing to a life-long hermetic existence outside the monastic. Like most introverts, Erlendur possesses a tenacious work ethic, tends to melancholy, and reads voraciously.  

It is 1974 and Erlendur Sveinsson is a 28-year-old beat cop in Reykjavik, Iceland. Though Miss Bates loved the wintry setting of Indridason’s previous books, living in a wintry land herself, Reykjavik Nights is spring- and summer-set. Erlendur’s official police work consists of rowdy drunks, DUIs, traffic accidents, run-ins with drug addicts and itinerants, domestic abuse, and public disturbances. Everything is exacerbated in a country where, and what most of us don’t realize, the title’s “nights” are not “night-ish,” a wonderfully ironic twist to the human darkness Erlendur encounters. Indridason writes so tenderly from this rough cop’s POV: 

… Reykjavik nights, so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate. Night after night he and his fellow officers patrolled the city in the lumbering police van, witnessing human dramas that were hidden from others. Some the night provoked and seduced; others it wounded and terrified.

Indridason writes about the mundane, everyday world of an honest, hard-working policeman. Erlendur never draws a gun (guns aren’t even mentioned); more often than not, his encounters are with people of sadness, despair, addiction, and loss. His arrests consist of inept burglars and belligerent drunks. The domestic abuse cases, sadly, don’t result in arrests. The homeless, addicted, and suicidal are the reality of an ordinary policeman and yet, Indridason makes poetry of it in Erlendur. (Like Miss Bates favourite fictive detective, P. D. James’ Dalgliesh, Erlendur loves poetry.)

Reykjavik Nights isn’t focussed, like many a murder mystery, on a sensational crime, the body with the knife sticking from its back. It opens, rather, with the discovery of one of Reykjavik’s lost souls, a homeless alcoholic named Hannibal, found drowned by three local boys. There’s nothing to indicate Hannibal’s is anything more than an accidental death, a drunk who tumbled into the water, or whose life on the streets led him to suicide. A number, a nobody, a nothing on the fringe. Except for one good man, Erlendur, who wants to know what happened, to give Hannibal the dignity of asking, “What happened? Why?” because he mattered. Unlike what we’ve come to expect of the murder mystery, a detective single-mindedly pursuing a case, Erlendur’s probe into Hannibal’s death is done on his own, unofficial time, when and if he can devote himself to it outside his duties. Devote himself he does: with persistent, intelligent delving into Hannibal’s life and family. Thus, Indridason breaks open a murder case, a mystery/puzzle, into personal tragedy. Indridason endows one of the “wretched of the earth” with a life: people, family, love, loss, sacrifice, guilt, a whole world, a whole life, a three-dimensional figure who emerges out of statistical shadows and our own shameful distaste.

At the centre is Erlendur, young and inexperienced, cutting his detective’s teeth. Out of responsibility and compassion, Erlendar wants to give Hannibal his due. For reasons stemming from a childhood trauma, Erlendur is fascinated by missing-persons cases. He reads about them, searches police archives, collects books, and tries to give a reason for their disappearances, giving the “disappeared” a shape and their families closure and peace. In pursuing this case (leading Erlendar to other missing-persons, to family pain and dissolution) we witness his tentative steps towards the brilliant detective work he enacts in earlier books. Here, for example, is his first attempt to question suspects: “Erlendur hesitated, uncertain how far he should go in making accusations based only on hearsay … needed to tread carefully; he didn’t know how to play this, had no experience of detective work.” There’s no threatening, intimidating, or wielding of a big gun, there’s only dogged chipping away, patient, persistent police work.

Indridason creates in young Erlendur a complex and deep character. In Reykjavik Nights, we glimpse Erlendur as a mulish introvert because this is what molds that dogged detecting work. MissB. loved this aspect of the novel. It permeates Erlendur’s life. Here, his love for isolated hikes is presented with rueful humour: ” … he had joined the Icelandic Touring Club … but didn’t take part in any of their organised trips … travelling with a bunch of relentlessly hearty people was not for him. Such forced jollity could quickly become oppressive.” What introvert insight! Is there a greater nightmare than “hearty people” and “forced jollity”? His fellow officers’ attempts to draw him to sociability are rebuffed: ” … he was usually reluctant. Staying in to read, listen to the radio or play records was more to his taste.” Classic, thought Miss Bates, with a smile. Erlendur has a relationship “of sorts” with Halldóra. This is how their interactions go:

She was silent for a moment, then said: “I hardly ever hear from you.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“I’m always the one who gets in touch. It makes me feel … like I’m bothering you.”

“That’s rubbish.”

“Perhaps you want to end it.”

“I … oh, please,” said Erlendur. “You’re not bothering me at all. It’s just … I’ve been working so much.”

Not exactly the stuff of romance, but honest. In it is the truth of hermetic types: Erlendur’s inner world (he reads, listens to music, wanders the city, hikes) is so rich, varied, and vast, the problem isn’t Halldóra: any relationship that takes from what he’s pursuing is bothersome. Most telling is this moment exemplifying the introvert’s total self-possession, control over their body’s integrity: “She sometimes made him hold hands as they walked through town but he would find any excuse to let go, putting his hand in his pocket or running it over his hair. He seemed to have no need for physical contact.” Erlendur’s self-possession sees him meditating on his interest in Hannibal’s fate. It leads him to consider his envy of Hannibal’s freedom, Hannibal’s choice to eschew social interaction. It endows Hannibal with a kind of freedom. Except we learn Hannibal’s life (and Erlendur doesn’t realize this, we do) on the streets was borne of guilt and tragic circumstance as much as personal choice. In another life, Hannibal was gregarious, giving, social, even happy-go-lucky.

Erlendur is dark and deep, like Frost’s forest, but his choices are wholly his, wholly uncompromising. And, yes, he will be lonely and alone one day, but he will have made his choices. Erlendur, like most introverts, is stoic. Erlendur, unlike Hannibal, endures because of his fixation to know, to answer questions about human nature, the reasons why people do what they do and where that leads them. He is sustained by his love of poetry, music, and reading. Like most introverts, he draws his strength from them, not social interaction. He’s driven by personal ethics to give everyone whose life has been cut short and erased at least an answer to “why?”. Miss Bates leaves you with this final image of the introvert-detective Erlendur; like most introverts, he doesn’t sleep much: “Perhaps that was the true origin of his insomnia. The compulsion that repeatedly interrupted his sleep, that kept him lying awake. An inexplicable tension in his body. A sense of anticipation he had not experienced before. A spark of life ignited by the investigation he had begun, on his own initiative, into a disappearance in the city.” Erlendur’s “spark of life” contains his raison d’être and the novel’s essence: these are the beginnings of a life dedicated to giving the silent a voice and making the choice to live solitary in the world. Miss Austen would have approved of Erlendur (to an extent, anyway, Halldóra’s fading from his life, Miss Bates admits, is inevitable) and says Reykjavik Nights proves there is “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights is translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. It is published by Minotaur Books (St. Martin’s Press). Released on April 21st, it’s available at your preferred vendor. Miss Bates is grateful to Minotaur Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

15 thoughts on “REVIEW: Arnaldur Indridason’s REYKJAVIK NIGHTS, Darkness In Light

  1. I haven’t read this one yet and kind of hesitant, too, honestly since it’s a prequel but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love this writer and have about two or three left in the series unread.

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    • I was hesitant too: thought Indridason had exhausted Erlendur and was kind of cashing in on popularity. Churlish of me, I admit. BUT REYKJAVIK NIGHTS doesn’t have the scope of his Erlendur series “proper,” but it fills things in. And if you like the author’s writing and series, it might be of interest to see how Indridason envisioned Erlendur’s origins.

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      • Great points and you’ve convinced me. He does have another one coming out, btw, forget the title. Another earlier Erlendur adventure. Guess he can’t let go of the character which is fine with me.

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        • Ha! He can’t let the character go is true. I read an interview, I think it was quoted on his Wikipedia article, that he thought he’s exhausted Erlendur, but he’s found new aspects to him in exploring his early days.

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  2. I rarely venture into crime reading any more. I cannot bear to read any murder detail at all. I did find this comment interesting “Erlendur never draws a gun (guns aren’t even mentioned)” particularly in light of your previous post. Another cultural indicator, perhaps?

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    • It’s not a reading I want to make a meal of either, especially because I find so much crimefic painfully graphic. But I miss it and I like dipping my toes in there, usually I like to sample a little cozy mystery, or historical mystery with a good dose of romance to it. I really, honest, can’t stomach reading violent descriptions. But Indridason is so spare, not in his prose, just in his use of violent detail: it’s there because it’s necessary and he leaves much left unsaid. And the gun thing: so interesting that these two books came together like that for me. Because there is NOTHING in REYKJAVIK NIGHTS that necessitates a gun, or gun intimidation. Erlendur is so compassionate and patient and serene in his investigations. It’s all his deep understanding of human nature and empathy that drive his detecting. Really, he’s the kind of detective the Buddha would have made.

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      • I wonder if there is any US crime novel that doesn’t include gun use?

        Another similarity between Crime fiction and Romance fiction is the spectrum of explicitness. You write “it’s there because it’s necessary and he leaves much left unsaid”. I think that sex scenes act much the same way in romance fiction as the detail to a crime does in crime fiction.

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        • I agree, I do think “explicitness” in sexual and violent detail respectively run the spectrum in rom and crime fic. I think that that is the stuff of which it’s made, but the mold and shape and mood is infinite, as the writer makes his choices from it. I also think you’re right in saying so because both aspects, whether detailed and explicit, or implied, or closed door, involves the human body in both its beauty and vulnerability. Hitchcock, who truly understood this, said to “film your murders like love scenes and your love scenes like murders.” And Hitchcock by the way is Indridason’s favourite director; Indridason started his career as journalist and film critic!

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      • I’m afraid I would have to scratch off those two writers I recommended to you on Twitter. Those writers tend to be very graphic yet very character driven. Sorry about that. I think you’d love Ruth Rendell as she doesn’t dwell much or show any interest in death scenes which is great. I’d have to think of some other writers for you who aren’t very graphic. They are out there I’m sure…

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  3. Thanks for this post and for giving me a much better sense of this series. I’ve seen it in the bookstore but haven’t paid close attention; it sounds like it might be just my cup of (criminal) tea. It’s probably best not to start with this prequel, though, so I’ll scout around for the earlier ones. There’s such a lot of interesting international crime fiction around these days! Like you, I don’t appreciate a lot of graphic violence, which has been my stumbling block with the Wallander books.

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    • You’re most welcome! 🙂

      I read one of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder mysteries and it was very graphic. I had a hard time with it, but it was so good in so many other ways. As with all books, I always say it depends. But I can’t make a steady diet of graphic books, that’s for sure.

      I think the previously published books may actually be more graphic than this one, maybe because in them Erlendur is a detective investigating murder and other violent crimes. The beat cop setting here is really wonderfully done: I think the worse we see of Erlendur is frog-marching a petty thief who annoys him because he won’t stop talking! Which would be typical of Erlendur’s introversion. Moreover, I think whatever Indridason writes of violence is in the service of character, mood, and motivation … most interesting and masterful combination of all three! I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts when/if you read an Indridason!

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