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.
One of the reasons I appreciate Adler-Olsen is his droll sense of the ordinary, his glimpses into the crusty detective’s daily life. Carl has two roommates, including the son of his ex-wife (his stepson lives with him while the teen’s mother grazes from one poor, needy artist to the next). In a toss-away paragraph he mentions passing by his stepson Jesper’s closed door: “Carl went upstairs where the nostalgia renaissance was about to blow Jesper’s door out into the stairwell. He was in the midst of a Led Zeppelin orgy while splattering soldiers on his Nintendo, as his zombie girlfriend sat on the bed, texting her hunger for contact to the rest of the world.”
This goes a long way to explain why I return again and again to hyper-intelligent genre fiction. Perhaps it is “weak” of me to love a muscular plot, but the sinews of daily life and insight into the way we (or Scandinavians) live now, keeps me reading.
I recently was reading a Jo Nesbo (I think it was “Leopard”) where the detective Harry Hole sits at his dying father’s bedside, and the patriarch expresses his unconditional love for his son (who’s reached what may be a new low for the frequently addicted dick). I wept.
As for “The Absent One,” at the end all I could think was, “O the humanity, and O the inhumnity.” Also, when will the next Department Q book be translated into English?
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Wow. This book is a quick read. You just keep wanting to peel the onion. It starts out like a dysfunctional relationship book. In fact, my husband who loves mysteries but wouldn’t be caught dead reading women’s literary fiction (even though I write it) claims “Gone Girl” doesn’t start until pg 215. There are many twists and turns, but what’s interesting is that this is the stuff of women’s relationship fiction — a very sick co-dependent pair of yuppies muddling through the conflicts that either bond marriages or break them — twisted and turned into a nailbiter of a who-and-why-dunit. It works, only later did I have the feeling that there were certain plotholes and that in the end I’d spent a lot of time with people I wouldn’t have shared a meal with. Still, I’d recommend it.
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p.s. 20th Century Fox just acquired the book for development with Reese Witherspoon’s producing company. Flynn will adapt.