Icelandic bachelors


We’re hopeless. The whole lot of us. Old Icelandic bachelors that is. By Icelandic I mean Icelandic North American as well as the real thing.
That’s why there was a report in Iceland Review some time ago that Icelandic women prefer foreign men. I don’t blame them. English men, for example are improvable. A woman can look at a callow youth and see his potential. It may be hard work and take time but eventually he can be taken out in public.
That’s not true of Icelandic men. What you see is what you get. If he wears running shoes with a business suit or flosses his teeth at the table when he’s twenty-five, he’ll be doing it when he’s seventy-five. It’s not a matter of looking at potential and saying, when I’ve whipped him into shape, he’ll be worth living with. Instead, it’s a matter of looking at him and saying do I want to live with this the rest of my life?
A lot of my friends are hopeless cases. Bundles of bad habits. At least they change their long johns more than once a year. A friend of mine knew a bachelor who bought one pair of long johns every spring. He came into the country store, the owner gave him a pair of scissors and sent him into the back. He cut them off, put on the new pair, pulled on his clothes and left. The store owner lifted the year old underwear with a pitchfork and put it in the burn barrel with a bit of gasoline and some dry wood.
It’s not just Icelandic women who think that Icelandic bachelors are a hopeless lot. Hallgrímur Helgason, in 101 Reykjavik, has Hlynur, a terrible drunkard who also takes drugs, has no ambition, doesn´t have and doesn´t want, a job, as the main character. He spends his days watching pornography but when the opportunity for sex appears, he makes love with his sunglasses on and, as soon as possible, after it is over, flees.
Arnaldur Indriðason´s detective, Erlendur, has been divorced for years. He was a lousy husband and father, and can´t manage a relationship. When he´s not detecting, he lies around feeling sorry for himself because of a past trauma. Some of the time, his wrecked daughter appears and berates him for his failings as a father and husband.  His idea of a good time is to get svið from a fast food take out and eat it by himself.
Yyrsa Sigurdardóttir´s main character is a woman lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She divorced a useless husband who is so involved in karaoke singing that he has no time for his kids. Icelandic men are so hopeless (see above, Hlynur and friends) that Thora hasn’t had sex for two years. When she does let lust overcome her, it’s with a German. Thora agrees with the Iceland Review. Foreign men are better.
Even Laxness agrees that Icelandic bachelors are a dreadful lot. In Independent People, he has the innocent, fourteen year old daughter of Bjartur of Summerhouses, Asta Sollilja, seduced and made pregnant by her teacher. In The Fish Can Sing, Garðar Hólm, is both a fraud as a singer and, it would appear, as a lover for he flees from the attentions of a young woman whom he has seduced. In Paradise Reclaimed, Steinar abandons his family while he goes off an exotic journey. After he leaves, his barely adolescent daughter is made pregnant by the Icelandic sociopath, Björn of Leirur.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So my grandmother used to say. She was right. Habits are hard to break. The longer you have them, the more deep the ruts in which they run. Then there are genetics. Icelandic genes have been formed in isolation for over a thousand years. There’s been no need to adapt. It’s easier to make up Icelandic words for things, including television and computers and financial instruments, rather than learn English ones.
I still eat dried cod even though my one great grandmother left Iceland around 1874 and there are no cod in Lake Winnipeg. We’ve been codless for nearly one hundred and fifty years but I still eat dried cod. I still eat vinarterta with prunes even though in Iceland, they’ve shifted to rhubarb filling. I’m outraged by rhubarb filling. It’s not that it tastes bad. It just shouldn’t be done. Not that I’m any more rigid than most Icelandic men. I remember one woman saying to me, “You’re the most intractable man I´ve ever met.” I had to look it up. She just hadn’t met many Icelandic men.
 “Why don’t you get married?” I asked an Icelandic bachelor friend of mine. He’s very eligible. Good looking still, has a whacking good pension, beautiful house, nice car, sense of humour, highly educated, successful.
He sighed and didn’t say anything. He looked around. I knew what he was thinking. Being married once was enough. He’d proven he could do it. For awhile, at least. Enough to breed and get over the insatiable need for sex out of his system. If he got married again, he’d have to adapt, he’d have to do things differently than he was used to. He’d have to negotiate. Do we have scrambled eggs for breakfast or oatmeal porridge? Do we go to Florida or California this winter? His wife would want him to wear button down collars or not wear button down collars. She would want him to tell her where he was going before he disappeared for a week or two to visit friends. She’d want him to eat broccoli because it was good for him. Eating broccoli at his age might add three nano-seconds to his life.

All Icelandic men are essentially Vikings. Even if what they do for a living is deliver mail or sell shoes. They’re always dreaming of getting into a Viking longboat and heading off to pillage. They’ve been dragged to the ballet, Swan Lake, by their wives, but what they’re really thinking about is blood and guts and booty. You can tell by the faraway look in their eyes.
Men with Icelandic genes are a hopeless lot. They squeeze the toothpaste from the top. They forget to put down the toilet seat. They prefer a lawn that looks like a meadow instead of a golfing green. They forget birthdays and anniversaries. They drink wine out of juice glasses. They eat with their fork in their right hand.  None of these things would be a problem in an Englishman, Frenchman, or Italian. These habits would be imperfections that could be remedied, smoothed out. These men are no more difficult to upgrade than a kitchen. New cupboards here, a granite counter top there. With Icelandic men (and their North American counterparts) no amount of retrofitting would help.
(A somewhat different  version of this article appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Subscribe. Support your Icelandic heritage.)

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.


Silence of the Grave

If you know someone who likes murder mysteries, you have to put this book under that person’s  Christmas tree.
In Silence of the Grave, we see the police detective, Erlendur, caught up in what looks like a death that happened so long ago that it no longer matters. As his colleague, Sigurdur Óli, says, whatever happened, happened a long time ago. If there was anything untoward in the death, anyone involved would be dead by now. 
Sigurdur Óli is having his own problems. His live in partner is being overwhelmingly passionate and while he appreciates it, it also scares him because he senses that it is the precursor to a discussion about marriage and having children. During the course of the novel, he bobs and weaves, gives some ground, bargains for time.
 Elingborg, the third member of the police team, is a bit frustrated by Erlendur´s dogged persistence over something that probably doesn´t matter. There can be lots of reasons why a skelton might be uncovered in the building of a housing development. People do get buried outside of graveyards. It could be a forgotten burial plot. The discuss, argue the possibilities, all the while that an archologist and his team are carefully clearing the soil away from the remains.
Erlendur has his own personal problems. He´s obsessesed by the death of his brother in a blizzard many years before. He was holding his brother´s hand and in the cold and snow let go. Erlendur was rescued but his brother was never found. He´s also trying to cope with two children he abondoned to their mother twenty years earlier. His daughter, Eva Lind, has forced her way into his life, angry, resentful, bitter, defiant, accusing. During the novel, she clings ot life by a thread.
The mystery of the skeleton ends up involving many people, unearths many stories, reveals a dark side to Reykjavik past and present. It´s a side of Reykjavik that tourists seldom glimpse, a world of drugs, prostitution, and violence.
Indridason, in creating the detective, Erlendur, has created a character who is anything but a super-hero. He is filled with regrets, self-recrimination, blindnesses, an inability to deal effectively with personal relationships. He’s human. And that humanity makes him attractive, compelling, a person worth knowing.
Indridason’s ability to create and control a highly complex plot line is great. The murder mystery is wound intricately with the stories of Erlendur’s two colleagues, his family, the back story of events that took place during WWII.
He creates his setting quickly, easily, making it easy for the reader to see where the events take place. He expertly uses the setting to fore shadow  later events. On page 20, the narrator says, “Four bushes caught his attention, standing up out of the brush about 30 metres away. He walked over to them, and thought he could tell that they were redcurrant bushes. They were bunched together in a staright line to the east of the foundation and he wondered, storking his hands over the knobbly, bare branches, who would have planted them there in this no man’s land.”
In reading a novel by Indridason, don’t every pass over details lightly, dismissing them. They’ve been chosen carefully and no matter how innocuous they might seem, they lead the reader relentlessly toward the ending.
How engrossing is this murder mystery? I started reading it on the ferry to Salt Spring. Kept reading it, stopped only to put the occasional log on the fire and to eat a halibut dinner. There was much to be done but I ignored it all until the novel was finished. I’ll have to work twice as hard tomorrow but once and Indridason novel is begun, it is hard to put down.

Hypothermia, Indridason

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason kept me up last night. I haven’t stayed up reading until one in the morning for many years. On the ferry home from Salt Spring Island, I kept reading, and when I got home, I started a fire in the wood stove and continued to read. Except for making a cup of coffee, I did nothing else.
I have a friend who says she is in love with Erlendur, the detective in this murder mystery. He is the main character in a number of Indridason’s novels. I understand. Erlendur is one of those unforgettable characters, as un-Jamesbondish as i’ts possible to be, flawed, frustrating, obsessed. He was a terrible husband and not much of a father. His own life has been completely messed up by the loss of his brother in a blizzard in rural Iceland.
Hypothermia isn’t a police procedure novel. The story begins with the suicide of a woman called Maria. Her death seems quite straight forward. There’s nothing to indicate that anything is amiss. Maria’s mother has died some time before. Maria has been depressed, unhappy, has her own obsession, a desire to know if there is life after death. Her husband is a respectable doctor.
Something, though, doesn’t seem quite right and when one of Maria’s friends comes to Erlendur to tell him that Maria couldn’t possibly have committed suicide, he begins to ask questions. There’s no indication of a crime and there’s no official police investigation. However, Erlendur is like a dog with bone. He can’t quit chewing on it.
The brilliance of Idridason’s writing lies in his ability to juggle plot elements, juggle plot and sub-plot and keep them unified. Along with Erlendur’s inquiries into an expanding circle of people connected to Maria, he is also bothered by the disappearance of a young woman and a young man many years before. There seems to be no connection between them. The case of the young man is kept alive for Erlendur because the parents and after the mother’s death, the father’s coming to the office once a year and, gradually, every few years, to ask if there has been any news of his son.
Idridason is highly skilled in that he plants tiny details in the story that at later stages have major implications. In the case of the missing young woman and man, he has a character describe the young woman’s car as being a bit of a wreck, the passenger door being stuck, the window handles not working. It seems one of those background details of no significance. By the time the novel is over, these details turn out to be critical to events.
My friend who says she loves Erlendur also says that she only reads a set amount of pages each day because she doesn’t want to finish reading about him, his travails with his children and his ex-wife, his grief over his lost brother, his determination to follow obscure possibilities until they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to reveal a whole picture.
Put Hypothermia under your Christmas tree. Even non-fans of murder mysteries will be intrigued by this complex personality.