Arnaldur Indriđason, The Draining Lake (London: Harvill Secker, 2007 ). Wrap up warm for a chilly Icelandic police procedural. 5 stars
Although this 2004 novel is written by an Icelander and set in Reykjavik, it’s firmly indebted to the classic Swedish police procedural. Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson can be viewed as a third-generation representative of the Swedish police investigator, following in the footsteps of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. Morose, cynical and consumed with self-doubt, these policemen have become progressively more embattled and isolated with each generation. In Erlendur’s case, he’s forced to question the extent to which his absence as a father is responsible for his daughter’s slide into a drug addiction – one the novel describes in sober and hard-hitting detail.
The draining lake of the title is Lake Kleifarvatn, whose mysteriously receding waters reveal an old skeleton weighed down with a heavy Russian radio device. As Erlendur and his team begin the painstaking process of investigating this strange find, they are transported back to an era of international espionage and political unrest during the Cold War, whose consequences can only now be fully understood.
Two things lift this crime novel a cut above the average police procedural. The first is the fascinating insight the novel gives into the Cold War period, and in particular, the experiences of young, idealistic, Icelandic communists who were offered the opportunity to study in East Germany in the 1950s. The second is the sensitive treatment of the theme of ‘the missing’ and of the impact that losing someone without knowing his or her final fate can have on the individual.
A number of the characters, including Erlendur, have lost someone close to them, and the novel is haunted by their many absences. While some eventually learn what happened to their loved ones, others are not so fortunate. They, and crucially the reader, are left without an adequate resolution to the story of these disappearances, a deliberate omission that adds tremendous power to the narrative. Thus, while the central murder is solved, other aspects of the plot are left open, questioning the notion that a case can ever be fully solved. We might know who the murderer is, and understand what motivated them, but the void left by ‘the missing’ remains.
The Draining Lake is well written, enjoyable and thought-provoking: a first-rate, multi-layered crime novel. Erlendur is a welcome and worthy successor to Beck and Wallander, and the novel’s Icelandic setting adds a beguiling and unusual dimension to the chilly subgenre of dark, Nordic crime.
The novel is the 4th in the ‘Reykjavik murder mystery series’, and in my view, it’s the best so far.
Mrs. Peabody awards The Draining Lake a mighty 5 stars