Sunday, February 11, 2007

Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indridason

I saw a review of this novel in the New York Times and decided to read it purely out of curiosity about Iceland. This was the first Icelandic novel I had ever seen translated into English, and it received a good review, so I got it from the library. Apparently Indridason (there is an accent on the second d that I don't know how to reproduce) is a sensation in his home country; the back flap tells us that "he and J.K. Rowling are the only authors to simultaneously hold the top three spots on the Icelandic bestseller list."

The mention of Harry Potter should have given me a foretaste of what I was going to get from this novel. For example, here are some of the things I discovered about Iceland from Silence of the Grave. Yellow police tape is used to surround crime scenes. During Christmas, they listen to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas (presumably in English, unless Bing really covered his bases). Their garages are filled with old bikes and barbeque grills. The lead detective is haunted by various mistakes he made in his Past. And when these harried cops are in a rush, they scarf down cheap hamburgers.

The passage of Halley's comet, which figures tangentially in the plot, is linked to ... yes, the death of Mark Twain! He is the only historical figure mentioned in the book. Also, investigations in Iceland seem to proceed much the same way they do in America. At least once during the course of the investigation, a strip club must be visited - also, they must stumble into a seedy bar where "a miserable country singer" performs bad love songs. (What exactly is "country music" in Iceland?) A fortune teller must appear in a crucial moment and make an eerily accurate prediction.

Fifty pages in, around the mention of the BBQ grill, I started to suspect that America had quietly taken over Iceland a few years ago and no one had made much of a fuss about it. Other than the names, the only signs that this was a novel from halfway around the world were the mention of a "traditional Icelandic sweater" and a plot development involving a military base built during WWII, full of British and American troops. Those of us in search of the exotic, it seems, will have to go farther afield than Iceland - or transfer to a genre less constrained by the demands of suspense.

What we are left with, then, is a reasonably well-constructed mystery novel. The book is fairly predictable, except for the fact that the murder took place more than sixty years ago (a body is found when a plot is being excavated for new housing). Such old crimes bring up interesting issues, since it is unlikely that the perpetrator can still be punished. What then is the point of the investigation? Is there such a thing as cosmic justice - does every murder deserve to have its mysteries unraveled, simply because of a strange human feeling that such events deserve explanations? Does truth have a value outside of possible temporal consequences?

These questions are unfortunately more interesting than the book itself, which switches between the investigation and scenes from an unidentified family with an abusive husband. Clearly, then, either the husband or the wife is in that grave. You read on to see exactly how it happened, and for no other reason. Not a lot of brilliant sleuthing is done - mostly red herrings are uncovered, and then someone is found who explains exactly what went down. I wasn't disappointed by the end, but there was none of the intellectual pleasure that comes out of, say, a sturdy P.D. James plot.

I didn't get much else out of this book, unfortunately. There are some hilariously terrible attempts to render slang, which I imagine are the translator's fault. Here is the detective's daughter teenage jive: "Mum threw a wobbler when I said I was coming to see you." (Perhaps in her anger she tossed a frisbee at her?) Also, the book is written in the broken-up "exciting" prose of thrillers. A sample: "He dithered. Caught unawares. Then invited her inside." And. So. On. I hate this kind of writing. It is the literary equivalent of the whipsnap editing and swooping camerawork of bad TV action shows: an attempt to fabricate a dynamism that the narrative is unable to produce on its own.

Anyway, I would never have read this novel if it was just another decent piece of American pulp, but I suppose I'm glad I did. The discovery of nothing is itself a discovery, no? I admit that it is a little depressing, though, that mediocrity appears to basically be the same the world over. Wouldn't it be more interesting if "this book is typical" meant something different in every country?

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