There’s an interesting moment when mystery authors of signature detectives (Ian Rankin and his Rebus, for example) have reached into the darkest, most damaged corners of their hero or heroine’s psyche and face the possibility of retiring them. And, then, there are those like Philip Kerr in his Bernie Gunther series, who hop back and forth in time, filling in the blanks of the fictional past and digging deeper into their detective to reveal missing bits. (Almost like an old married husband that suddenly tells his wife a story that she has never heard before, although she thought she heard them all. So, along comes, Arnaldur Indrioason going back to the early days of his introverted, deeply moral, haunted Icelandic Detective Erlendur. What was he like on the early days in his job with the police in Reykjavik? As the title indicates, he was on the night shift, stepping in on family disturbances (often the most dangerous for cops — stepping between physically violent spouses that suddenly unite against the police). The young Erlendur is a little stiff, a little untried but shows the stubborn dedication and deep empathy that will define the character and his career. When he encounters the corpse of a homeless alkie face down in a green anorak drowned in a puddle, the decision to call it accidental death nags at him. Between detangling car crashes and drunken brawls at night, and occasionally dating a woman with minimal passion on his side, he begins to investigate the death and a few random disappearances as well. Those who know the series (not that you need to have read a single one of Indrioason’s wonderful novels to read this one), know that he is haunted by a disappearance in his past for which he feels profoundly guilty. It is interesting to see Indriason handle the defining tragedy here, gently, in small bites, with a light touch, because the young, green detective will not have faced down this core demon until later in his career/life. “Reykjavik Nights,” like all the writer’s novels, is subtle and patient and compulsively readable. I remember staying in for an entire drizzly summer day in Nantucket glued to “Voices,” about the stabbing of a hotel Santa set in Reykjavik, a victim and a locale that could not have been more opposite from my surroundings. And, yet, I had that delicious, let me just read one more chapter feeling, that led to another and another. I find the author’s prose simple to the point of hypnotic, his detective low-key, and this return to the early Erlendur, inexperienced traffic cop obsessed with the why behind suspicious deaths he’s not even tasked to investigate. This dogged trait, implanted here in a satisfying prequel, will lead to the man’s true vocation: finding the lost and bringing justice, when possible to the guilty that cavalierly end the lives of others and then try to retreat to some semblance of normality, But, as we see through Erlendur’s eyes, and into his heart, even the most apparently normal, functional individual is driven by past events they can often barely articulate.
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