Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason

3 Mins read

Translated by Victoria Cribb — Released in Iceland as Kamp Knox last November, Oblivion is the second of Arnaldur Indridason’s ‘young Erlendur‘ books. Similar to the way in which ITV gave us Endeavour – a look at Morse before he became a dour, old detective – here we see Erlendur before he became a dour, old detective. And as we discover, he was, well… a dour, young detective.

The book is set in 1979 and the mystery begins when a woman soaking herself in a mineral pool (one that seems incredibly similar to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, before it became a tourist trap) is alarmed to discover a corpse in the water. The police arrive and soon Erlendur and his colleague Marion learn the body is that of a man in his 30s, but he didn’t drown in the pool. He has injuries consistent with a fall from a great height onto a flat surface, and he’d been bashed on the back of the head. There’s all sorts of speculation. Maybe he fell out of an airplane? Or from one of Iceland’s many cliffs? How did he die and why was he dumped in the pool?

Soon he’s identified as Kristvin, an Icelandic man who worked in the hangars on the US military base at Keflavik, near the country’s international airport. Marion and Erlendur meet Kristvin’s sister, who’s suffering with cancer and the effects of chemotherapy. Using his contacts on the base, Kristvin was supplying her with medicinal marijuana to ease her suffering but as our Icelandic detectives look further into Kristvin’s dealings a whole range of other finagling emerges. The sort of finagling that could add up to motive. And when they notice that there’s a particularly huge hangar on the base with scaffolding inside it for the installation of a fire extinguishing system, Erlendur and Marion begin to think that’s where the man might have died.

As with other Nordic noir novels, Indridason’s prose is plain and matter-of-fact, without being as choppy as American hardboiled, and with moments of pure and simple poetry. He takes us further into the hearts of Erlendur and Marion. About the latter, we learn of a lost Danish lover and her regret and loneliness. If you’ve read Indridason’s previous Erlendur novels, you’ll know he’s obsessed with old missing persons cases – mainly due to his guilt over the loss of his younger brother in a snowstorm when he was a boy. So while we have the mystery of the man who fell to his death as the main thrust of Oblivion, on the side Erlendur is struggling to find out what happened to a teenage girl called Dagbjort who didn’t return from school one day back in the 1950s.

More than delivering two, fascinating and parallel mysteries, Oblivion will give you an authentic taste of Iceland, its customs, people and politics. Everyone is on a first name basis, beer is outlawed, and Erlendur happily wolfs down fermented shark flesh to the point where the smell permeates his clothing. To Erlendur, the US presence stinks even more and once he and Marion get onto the base to investigate we see the American military in all its arrogance. On the other hand, Indridason also shows us how some Icelandic people profited from the situation either through lucrative building and maintenance contracts from the Americans, or by dealing in contraband from the base – drugs, booze, cigarettes, bluejeans and records.

Though the Americans slam the door in their faces, Erlendur and Marion discover not only that Kristvin was having an affair with a serviceman’s wife, but also that he’d been close to a man who might be a CIA operative. This fellow is linked to a secretive cargo company flying to and from the base, and even bigger issues about Icelandic sovereignty arise. Luckily, they find an ally in the form of Sergeant Caroline Murphy, a black US Army MP whom they gradually entice into helping them. As Marion works with Caroline more closely, Erlendur focuses increasingly on long lost Dagbjort.

Oblivion isn’t the best introduction to Erlendur, and you need to know a little more about the man for some parts of this book to make complete sense. It’s also a little disappointing that Erlendur and Marion work apart towards the end of the novel. However, for fans of the detective it really is an enticing episode that fleshes out Erlendur’s backstory while revealing plenty about Iceland and what makes the place tick. Another powerful and thought-provoking read from Arnaldur Indridason.

Read our guide to the Erlendur series here, or click here to discover other Scandinavian crime fiction. If you like the sound of Oblivion, you may also like The Bone Seeker by JM McGrath which is set in Arctic Canada.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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