Written by Arnaldur Indridason — If you’ve read Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell and want to deepen your experience of the Nordic Noir sub-genre, then Arnaldur Indridason’s books need to be added to your TBR list. First published in English in 2004, Jar City introduced us to his detective Erlendur and was later made into a film. Recently screened again on BBC4, it may well be the most-watched Icelandic movie ever made. A further five Erlendur novels have appeared in English. However, in Black Skies, just out as a paperback, Erlendur is away and his colleague Sigurdur Óli is the central figure.
Sigurdur Óli hates being called Siggi, and has his own idiosyncratic approach to police work. He’s a touchy fellow, who feels down on his luck because his long-term girlfriend has left him. He’s as cynical and intuitive as any detective you’ll come across in crime fiction, and has a moral outlook that’s slightly out of step with modern Reykjavik. Still, when a friend of a friend asks Sigurdur Óli to warn off a woman who is blackmailing him with photos taken at a swingers party, the detective agrees. He arrives at the woman’s house to find her unconscious on the floor and the place has been ransacked. Her attacker, still lurking on the premises, aims swings a bat at Sigurdur Óli then flees at lightning speed.
Things don’t look so good for Sigurdur Óli. He’s not hurt, but the attacker got away and his colleague Finnur wants to know exactly why he was in this woman’s house. As Sigurdur Óli tries to dissemble, the tension grows between the two policemen. When Lina, the victim, dies, it turns into a murder investigation. Soon, Sigurdur Óli has established that she and her husband, a guide who takes people on tours of Iceland’s glacier, were casual drug users deep in debt. There seems to be a link between the couple and a banker who was on one of these tours, and fell off a cliff.
Meanwhile, there’s a gut-churning sub-plot for Sigurdur Óli to contend with. A Reykjavik drunk called Andrés, has been sending him cryptic messages, and we learn that this deeply damaged soul was sexually abused by his stepfather as a child. Andrés hints at what’s happened to him and seems to know where the offender is. Sigurdur Óli tries to investigate but the man is incoherent and evasive.
Though it’s a little odd that the main character is referred to pedantically as Sigurdur Óli throughout, Black Skies is an excellent read. As our flawed and sometimes irritating hero spirals in on the killer and their motives, the story runs into financial thriller territory. We learn about the overextension of Iceland’s banks, which caused so much consternation across Europe a few years ago. Unbridled greed and arrogance are at work in the country’s financial institutions. Sigurdur Óli starts off admiring the people who’ve done well on the world financial market, and the author cleverly pokes at his main character’s neo-conservatism. As if he needed further trouble, as he broods over his failed love life while solving the case.
It’s often said that Nordic Noir rarely exhibits the characteristic traits of classic noir. However, Black Skies is full of that existential bleakness. As the story unravels, you’ll discover that there is no ultra villain to contend with; no dividing line between good and evil. Lina is dead, and plenty of other evil deeds have been done. Nothing can change that. It’s all down to the characters and their hang-ups – whether they’re damaged, deranged, misguided, greedy, in debt or sexually depraved. Gradually drawing the plotlines together, not everything makes sense for Sigurdur Óli in the end, but being who he is, he never expects it to. Yet Black Skies still manages a very poignant, thoughtful and satisfying conclusion. Not just for fans of Nordic Noir, this is a novel all crime fiction lovers will enjoy.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars