Erlendur Sveinsson is chief homicide detective in Reykjavik and the main character in Arnaldur Indridason’s series of detective novels. Or perhaps “was” is the proper word here since Erlendur walked into the hills at the end of Hypothermia and hasn’t been seen since. Will he ever return? Probably even Arnaldur Indridason doesn’t know for certain — he says that he doesn’t plan his books out, just starts writing — but he has suggested that characters have a limited life span, perhaps ten books.
So far there are eleven novels in the series. The first two have never been translated into English and possibly never will be. The last two have not yet been translated. The English version of the ninth book, Black Skies, is due this summer. Erlendur, the dour detective, is the main character in the first seven books. Erlendur is caught by the past. He does not like or understand urban life and constantly broods over his own rural past. While a young boy, Erlendur lost his brother in a snow storm and he is consumed by guilt about it. During the summer, he travels back to his old farm and hikes into the country, seeking his lost brother. In winter, he sits alone in his Reykjavik apartment reading accounts of people lost in Iceland’s back country.
There are other lost people in Erlendur’s life: He abandoned his family while his son and daughter were small; he doesn’t know exactly why. Erlendur’s ex-wife is still angry about it. His son has little to do with his father and seems to be descending into alcoholism. Erlendur’s daughter, Eva Lind, is a junky. Erlendur tries to help her but can hardly help himself. Lost people, all of them, but it is their effort to find themselves or to allow themselves to be found by others that make these characters so compelling.
Erlendur’s passion to Know, to solve mysteries, is a reflection of the inexplicable events of his own life that he cannot account for. So it is that we find him still looking for that lost brother as if discovering what happened to him would explain everything else in his history. Suppose Erlendur does discover his brother’s remains, will that really solve his own mystery? Will it assuage his guilt over the mess he’s made of his family? Is it really his brother that he’s seeking or the lost pastoral idyll that was his life before the boy was lost? There is no haven in the past but Erlendur seems unable to moor himself to the present; he is slipping away even as others reach out for his hand as he reached for his brother’s.
So, at the end of Hypothermia, Erlendur is hiking up into the place where he lost his brother. It is winter now and before long Erlendur disappears into the cold fog. In the next book, Outrage, Erlendur does not appear. The case is handled by Elinborg, one of Erlendur’s subordinates, who has been introduced in earlier books. She is a person with her own family problems who is trying to work things out. She is a gifted cook and approaches cases in the same way as she analyzes a new recipe. Elinborg is not lost but she is seeking a kind of harmony in human relations that she also looks for in the ingredients of her cookery. At the end of Outrage people have begun to notice that no one has heard from Erlendur in a while. Then his car turns up, possibly abandoned.
Black Skies features another of Erlendur’s detectives, Sigurdur Oli. Sigurdur is a guy who likes to enjoy himself, is pretty casual with other people’s feelings, and is not particularly interested in truthfulness. He is having relationship problems but seems to be fairly indifferent about them. Sigurdar is self-sufficient, or at least appears to be. He does not feel the need for relationships that Elinborg has, nor does he seem to be tormented by events as Erlendur is.
Furðustrandir, published in Iceland in 2010, picks up with Erlendur searching the family farm but, since it’s not out in English yet, I don’t know what happens. Can Erlendur survive to star in ten books? This will be number eight.
The latest book in the series is Einvígið, set in 1972 during the Fischer-Spassky chess match. The detective is Marion Briem, Erlendur’s mentor. Briem figures in several of the preceding novels and Erlendur attends his deathbed in Arctic Chill. At Briem’s funeral, Erlendur muses:
His thoughts flew home to his books about torment and death in merciless winter storms. Those were stories he could understand; they kept alight the embers of old feelings in his breast, of regret and grief and loss. He bowed his head into the wind. As so often before at this darkest time of the year he wondered how people had survived for hundreds of years in a country with such a harsh climate.
But the chill that Erlendur feels is found everywhere in the world. Everywhere are those who are lost and those who are seeking after them.
I don’t know if Indridason means to have Erlendur disappear forever on the side of a mountain or perish slowly over the years and die in a nursing home like Martin Briem. But one doom or the other seems to be awaiting Erlendur Sveinsson. But maybe, hopefully, I am wrong. Maybe Eva Lind can get her father involved with life. Of course Eva is the one who sent Erlendur back to the east to seek his brother: “Go out there and do what you have to do. Get rid of him and free yourself. You owe it to yourself after all these years. And him too. Let him die.” Poor Eva! What will happen to her if Erlendur follows her advice and himself disappears. Will she then wind up searching for the father who left her?
Books from Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series available in English (in chronological order):
Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller (also published as Tainted Blood. A movie has been made from the book and a subtitled version seems to be available.)
Silence of the Grave: Reykjavik Thriller
The Draining Lake
Hypothermia: A Reykjavik Murder Mystery