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Monday, January 3, 2011

Shedding Tears over an Icy Grave



“Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men’s fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death.”
That one rather stark statement sums up the message at the very heart of Arnaldur Indriđason’s Arctic Chill, but it applies to each of the other books in his continuing “Reykjavik Thriller” series, as well, for there is always the underlying awareness in his writing that truly awful things happen around us and to us... but we’re powerless to do more than attempt to pick up the pieces and forge ahead. (Fortunately, that’s precisely what most of us typically do.) 
The primary case in question in Arctic Chill is particularly tragic; the body of a young boy has been found outside on a bitterly-cold January evening, frozen to the ground. A closer inspection reveals that he was stabbed and subsequently bled out on the spot, dying in a little garden area behind a block of flats before anyone who might have been able to help could stumble upon him. 
A bright, sweet, ten-year-old boy--his life snuffed out before it had hardly even begun...
A mixed-race child, half-Thai and half-Icelandic, not quite belonging anywhere...
And now, his older half-brother is missing, too.
It is a case which, unsurprisingly, hits the members of our trusty trio of Reykjavik detectives very hard. Sigurdur Óli--the brash younger detective with a penchant for Americanisms and a love of American TV police shows--has been grappling with child issues of his own at home, as he and his girlfriend have only recently learned they’re unable to conceive. For Elínborg, the female member of the team, life is a constant struggle of trying to balance the demands of her job with the needs of her own family, a husband and daughter. Both Sigurdur Óli and Elínborg feel the sadness and frustration inherent in such a case--the outrage that such a thing could even happen and a grim determination to bring the boy’s killer to justice--and the sense of urgency to find the missing brother. 
Nothing compares to what Erlendur, the solemn lead detective, is experiencing as the team painstakingly analyzes each clue and contemplates every possible scenario, though, because there are just too many parallels to his own life. He is a man haunted by a nightmare from childhood; his life has been forever tainted by a tragedy more than thirty years in the past, when he and his eight-year-old brother were lost in a horrible snowstorm... and only one of them was ever found. 
The fact that the case also involves a broken family--the dead boy’s mother and the remaining half-brother, who are scraping by on their own, while the father (now divorced from the mother) has very little contact with them--further contributes to the crushing weight Erlendur endures as he struggles to make any sense out of the events, because that is yet one more similarity. Following a messy divorce of his own long ago, Erlendur is still in the process of very slowly getting reacquainted with his two (rather troubled) adult children, after a very long absence from their lives.
Thus individually affected, the team wastes no time in tracking down every possible lead; with one child dead and the other missing, time is the enemy. Neighbors submit to interviews, as do the boys’ classmates and teachers. Gradually, a picture of two very different boys begins to emerge. Elías, the dead boy, was mixed-race, and although born an Icelander, his darker coloring from the Thai side still caused him to stand out as a foreigner, and he was thus subject to being treated differently by some people. Half-brother Niran, on the other hand, was born in Thailand, and had only moved to Iceland in recent years to be with his mother and brother. Although Elli encountered a bit of difficulty fitting in, he genuinely wanted to do so, unlike Niran, who hates being in Iceland and refuses to learn the language or local culture. And, where Elli had become friends with some of the other children in his classes, Niran is only friendly with a couple of other “outsiders”--immigrants, like himself, who want nothing to do with the native kids. It is clear to the detectives that racial issues could conceivably play a part in this heartbreaking case.
Worse, it isn’t only the other children who’ve exhibited signs of racial bias; a couple of teachers have been quite outspoken about how unacceptable the presence of non-Icelanders in the schools is to them, as well.
There are other possible motivations, too. Rumors swirl of drug problems at the school. A local pedophile’s name pops up in connection with the case. Perhaps the boys saw something they weren’t meant to see... and someone is out to make sure they never get the chance to tell anyone. 
It’s a frustrating case for the team, as they race against the clock trying to figure out who killed one brother... while trying to locate (save, protect) the other. Erlendur, Sigurdur Óli, and Elínborg are well aware they’re being lied to and/or misled at every other turn--whether by someone guilty of this crime (or another) or by someone who would just prefer to keep certain things hidden. The trick is determining truth from untruth, nuance from implication, and ferreting out the guilty party. The truth, however, seems destined to remain as elusive to the team of detectives as the rays of the January sun...
  
❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅ ❅
Arctic Chill isn’t the sort of book to reach for if your taste (or mood) runs to the light and amusing; Indriđason’s stories are as grim and moody as the bitterly-cold, grey, and forbidding Icelandic landscape in which they are set. It’s just as layered as the endless snow and frost, too; Erlendur is simultaneously working an older case, while also coping with a terminally-ill friend, with a fledgling love life, with his prickly adult kids, and always--always--with the tragic loss of his own brother so long ago, which has since become his obsession.
As much about the human condition and the emotional turmoils which fell us as it is about crime, this is an intensely-thoughtful work, full of atmospheric details and descriptions which perfectly frame such a dark tale. Lyrically beautiful and touching, it’s incredibly easy to identify with the main characters, even as they perpetually hold themselves somewhat apart from each other. These are people--and this is a story, and a situation--which will resonate for a very long time.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies   

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