Suffer the little children, Indriðason

With every book I read by Arnaldur Indriðason, I become a greater fan of his writing.

I read Voices some time ago but yesterday, beset by cold and snow in Gimli, Manitoba, I settled down to reread it. Well written books are worth rereading. The first read is for sheer pleasure. The second reading is for appreciating. This second read is to admire the craft of the novel. And Indriðason is certainly a master craftsman.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I was addicted to reading English murder mysteries. These were inexpensive Penguin paperbacks. They were, as I remember, brilliant, just in the way that many police/detective TV English shows are brilliant today.
Why were they brilliant? Because they never cheated. They never held back information and then suddenly provided it in the last few pages with an aha gottacha. The only person getting to play in a novel is the author and tricking the reader shows neither a good grasp of craft nor respect for the reader. An author who finishes a plot with an, “I tricked you, look at me, see how clever I am, I tricked you,” is an author who shouldn’t be published.

The Penguin mysteries were brilliant because they developed character. They might not have developed characters with the roundness of a Jane Austen but the major characters were developed in such a way as to make them human, understandable. They were usually flawed because we are all flawed. That’s the human condition. When we triumph, we don’t just triumph over circumstance but over our own weaknesses. Since these characters were human, we cared about them.

The minor characters, while flatter or even flat, were deftly drawn in a few lines, often unforgettably so. A sharp image, precise details of some characteristic created them so the reader could see them quite clearly.
Although many so-called genre novels have clichéd themes (crime does not pay), the best murder mysteries, went beyond that, explored some aspect of the human condition, left a reader not just puzzling over plot but thinking, afterwards, about the meaning of what had happened and how it related to him or her world.

In these top notch murder mysteries, setting was created in a way that no matter how exotic or distant, the reader could imagine what it was like to be in that location. This was done with preciseness in language. The language was sensory. Not sensual. Sensory. As a reader, I could taste, smell, hear, feel, see what was happening. Poor writing was general, vague, imprecise and didn’t open up the experience on the page so it could be entered.

Indriðason does all these things right in Voices. It´s no wonder it won the CWA Gold Dagger award.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir, in a lecture said that in a murder mystery, the worst has happened. The novel then reaches back through events to unravel why and how it has happened, who has done the worst.

That is true in Voices. It begins close to Christmas. A hotel employee who dresses up each year as Santa Clause has been murdered in the basement room in the hotel where he lives. None of the employees at the hotel seem to know anything about him. Although he has worked at the hotel for years, he is a cipher.

The police team that Indriðason has created is already on the case on page one. Elinborg, the female member of the team is already at the hotel. Sigurdur Oli, the junior officer arrives, then the main character, Erlendur, appears. Every one of these three has been created in such a way that makes them human, flawed, with weaknesses and strengths, with limitations, with prejudices. Erlendur is the roundest of the characters but each of the three has a life and the travails that go with it. By the end of the book, I feel that I know them well enough that I wish I really knew them. That is a great accomplishment on the author’s part.

The plot, even though I was reading the book for the second time, held me. It is detailed, complicated, logical. The behaviours of the suspects and public figures is clearly motivated. The hotel manager with his fear of a scandal affecting the hotel’s Christmas business and his lack of compassion for the dead doorman is very real. I can see him sweating, worrying, completely unaware of how perverted his are his values. The prostitute, Stina, who is introduced near the end of the book is unforgettable, not just for her recently implanted large breasts, but because of the reaction they get.

There is, to add to the delight of this book, a kind of dark humour that, to me, is particularly Icelandic, that runs through the entire narrative. When Erlendur meets Valgerdur, a biotechnician taking saliva samples, for the first time in years, he’s overwhelmingly interested in a woman and, out of practice, naturally reticent, he, with the help of his daughter, Eva, manages to screw up the potential relationship.

Indriðason is in such control of his material that he is able to keep a running joke about the heat in Erlendur´s hotel room working throughout the story. He also is able to keep numerous parallel stories—that of an abused child, for example—working throughout the narrative. It’s a bit like watching a juggler adding more and more objects that he can juggle and wondering just how many he can hold up at once.

Chekov said, If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Indriðason puts a poster on the wall at the very beginning of the novel and, at the very end of the novel, it’s importance is made clear. It is brilliantly done.  Indriðason knows his craft. He knows his Chekov. And, for those who study these things, he knows his Maupassant. Anyone wanting to learn to write mysteries, would well to study the lessons here.

Good book. You don’t need me to tell you that. It has won accolades here, there and everywhere. However, if you haven’t heard of Indriðason, or don’t think you are interested in murder mysteries, this is a reminder of why you should buy this to put under your Christmas tree as a gift for yourself. 

After the Christmas feast is over, and Boxing Day has come, shoo the children off to another room to play with their new toys, let those who will fight the madding crowds in the shopping centres do so, pour your favourite drink, get a fire going in the fireplace, put up your feet, and allow the author to draw you into the seamier side of Reykavik, the side the tourists don’t get to see.