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Father Christmas is dead

13 September 2006

6:43 PM

13 September 2006

6:43 PM

Voices Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Bernard Scudder

Harvill Secker, pp.314, 12.99

The Silence of the Grave, Indridason’s previous novel, won the three international crime-writing awards, including Britain’s Gold Dagger. It featured his Icelandic series detective, the lugubrious policeman Erlendur, who returns in Voices to investigate the murder of a doorman at one of Reykjavik’s smartest hotels. It’s just before Christmas, and the hotel management is less than co-operative for fear of scandal. The doorman, who was about to appear at a children’s party, was found stabbed in his Santa Claus outfit with his trousers around his ankles and a condom drooping from his penis.

At first sight, then, the murder looks as if it might be the consequence of a sexual encounter that turned sour. But the doorman was once a child singer who, for a few short months before his voice broke, was on the brink of international stardom. His two records are now collector’s items capable of commanding large prices. One person who is more than willing to pay for them is staying at the hotel — an Old Etonian, a convicted paedophile obsessed with choirboys. Or is the murder simply a family matter concerning the victim’s estranged father and sister, who have their own reasons to hate the dead man? Another possibility is that it is in some way connected with the hotel itself, whose placidly affluent surface covers a multitude of vices and crimes.

Intercut with the main investigation is the fall-out from another case led by Erlendur’s colleague Elinborg. She has wrapped a net of circumstantial evidence tightly round a father accused of assaulting his young son. But the son refuses to confirm his father’s guilt.

Another narrative thread deals with Erlendur’s private life. His pleasures at home consist of drinking Chârtreuse, eating boiled smoked lamb and reading about mountaineering fatalities, which may not strike everyone as a recipe for a fun evening. Traumatised in childhood by his brother’s death, scarred by a messy divorce, he has lost touch with his son, now an alcoholic. Only now is he trying to build a relationship with his daughter, a junkie desperately fighting her addiction and coping with a recent miscarriage. Even Iceland itself is part of the problem — ‘no one is able to excel in this dwarf state’.

The novel is about children and how we bring them up; in particular, it explores how the dead weight of parental expectation can affect young lives. Like so much Scandinavian crime fiction, it is based on the unstated assumption that society itself is partly responsible for the aberrations of its individual members. At times the narrative seems stolid, almost schematic, as though Indridason had social-science textbooks at his elbow as he wrote it. The plot doesn’t always convince, either, and the ending feels rushed and fails to surprise.

Despite these drawbacks, however, and despite the melancholy ingredients, this is not a gloomy or unsatisfying book. The horror and sadness of the murder case are offset along the way by little acts of kindness and shafts of gallows humour. The net result is a grimly readable novel, a slow-burner that draws you more and more deeply into the investigation and into the dark dilemmas of the principal characters. Once again Indridason demonstrates that the best Scandinavian crime writers can hold their own against their British and American rivals.

Andrew Taylor’s latest novel is A Stain on the Silence (Michael Joseph).

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