Written by Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Victoria Cribb — Sad news for fans of Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason. Strange Shores is the last in the series featuring Detective Erlendur. After wonderful novels like Jar City, Silence of the Grave and Hypothermia, one of the great detectives of Nordic noir is bowing out, and it doesn’t seem likely we’ll see his fellow cop Sigurdur Óli in future either.
If you read Black Skies, you’ll know that Erlendur played no role in the previous story. It’s vaguely explained that he’s away, taking care of some family business. In Strange Shores, we find out exactly what he was up to. Well, perhaps not exactly, because parts of the story have an abstract, dreamlike essence to them as Erlendur deals with his childhood memories. In particular, it’s the pain and guilt he grew up with. We find out that he had a distant, manic depressive father who was a musician, and that his mother suppressed her emotions. But the root of it all was the death of Erlendur’s younger brother, Bergur – or Beggi.
Out looking for a ewe with their father, one afternoon, the boys became separated from him when a fierce snowstorm struck. Erlendur was pulled from a drift later but little Beggi was never found. Now, Erlendur has returned to the cold, harsh hillsides and fjords of eastern Iceland – away from the haven of Reykjavik in the south west – to mull this over. He even stays in the ruin of the family’s old farmhouse, abandoned for good when they moved to the city after Beggi’s death.
Beggi isn’t the only one in the story who disappears during a storm. A woman from a local village set out across the moor years earlier, during World War II. Apparently Matthildur planned to march to her mother’s house, and left in fine weather. She was never heard from again. However, after her disappearance, rumours swirled about the community concerning her relationship with her husband Jakob. When Jakob’s fishing boat went down in the fjord some years later, it was said her ghost had come and claimed him. Throughout the book we get a look at rural life in Iceland during the 40s and 50s, the hard working lifestyle of the area’s fishing and farming, and the old fashioned mores of that bygone society. These are juxtaposed with the current day which sees a new dam being built, a port growing like a carbuncle on the fjord, and foreign companies sucking minerals from the landscape.
Erlendur’s curiosity over Matthildur is piqued via some chance remarks made by a fox hunter he meets at the beginning of the book. His detective instinct takes over and he quizzes the old folks in the area. They include Erza, a fisherman in his 90s who worked with the ill-fated Jakob; Hrund, the surviving younger sister of Matthildur; and he even finds a nephew nobody new Matthildur had. The more he digs, the more likely it seems that Matthildur met her end by the hot, violent hand of man, rather than through the cold brutality of nature. Can he find a trace of Matthildur, or Beggi, after all these decades?
It’s not just the locals who find Erlendur’s search for the truth about Matthildur perplexing, he doesn’t quite understand it himself. Yet in parallel to this search, each night he lies down in the freezing, beaten down farmhouse, and drifts off into a place where he can almost see and hear his long-lost brother Beggi. He ruminates on what happens to mind and body during hypothermia.
Strange Shores has just about everything the crime fiction lover could want from a novel. It misses the intensity and complexity of a police investigation in modern Reykjavik, as seen in earlier books. However, more than writing another mystery, Indridason really wanted to unravel his main character for us, explain the man at a much deeper level, and thereby give the series a more fitting wrap-up. Like the environment in Iceland, the prose is sparse and impassive, making the scattered moments of warmth all the more moving. Fans who truly love the character will appreciate Strange Shores a great deal. You may even want to read it twice – savouring the Reykjavik series to the last drop.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars