In Black Skies, Arnaldur Indridason’s latest mystery novel set in Iceland, the main character of the series, Erlendur, is still missing. He has gone away for a holiday but has stayed longer than expected. The problem of solving a murder falls on one of his subordinates, Sigurdur Oli, whom readers have got to know in previous novels. In the early novels, there was Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg. However, we only catch a glimpse of Elinborg for she is in charge of another investigation.
There are reminders of Erlendur and his absence. His daughter calls, looking for him. A strange derelict haunts the novel with a paper bag he wants to give to Erlendur. This derelict, Andres, has appeared in previous novels. Erlendur has been obsessed through previous novels with the death of his younger brother when they were children. They were lost in a snow storm. Erlendur let go of his brother’s hand and when rescuers came and found Erlendur, they never found his younger brother. Since then Erlendur has been obsessed with his brother’s death and has searched the heath for his remains at every opportunity. Erlendur is inclined to be morose and brooding. There is a line in the novel where a character mentions that Erlendur was interested in an area where there were some lakes. The possibility of his suicide lies behind all the activity in the novel.
Black Skies stands up well as a novel in its own right. The main character, Sigurdur Oli, is an interesting character, one deeply flawed with serious limitations that cause him to make decisions that someone less flawed would avoid. In previous novels where he has been a secondary character, the reader has not seen much of his background. He’s married, he and his wife can’t have children, he likes to BBQ, he prefers American popular culture, he’s a snob, particularly about clothes (it’s a common Icelandic quality). In this novel, we get to see further into his life and character as we meet his domineering mother and his wimpy father.
We also get a closer look at his values. He resents the Icelanders in Reykjavik who are living a high life, owning extravagant houses and expensive cars, all on credit as the economic boom accelerates. The crash has not yet happened. Greed and ambition abound and Sigurdur Oli wonders if he’s made the wrong decision in becoming a policeman. The people he’s investigating are hiring musical groups to play at parties in their homes. They have the best of everything.
Once again, Indridason has fashioned a tightly structured novel with an intricate plot. The unravelling of the plot is interesting, the connections sometimes surprising, but equally interesting is the way in which the underbelly of Icelandic society is revealed.
Everyone reading this novel, does so with at least some awareness of the boom and bust in Iceland, the Kreppa. The novel takes us into the seamy but common side of the financial fraud and manipulation that went on. Icelanders, in reality, place great emphasis on appearance and material success. They want nothing but the best. The best clothes, the best furniture, the best appliances, the best houses, the best cars, the best holidays. At the same time, there are those who do not get to participate in this rush to grab as much of the best as possible. There are the drunks, the street people, the drug dealers, the drug addicts, the senselessly violent, the sexually risky.
In this novel Indridason manages to pull all these people together into an intricate plot that leads this reader of mystery novels to say buy this book, put it under the Christmas tree.