Department header
Bewildering Stories

Arnaldur Indriðason, Silence of the Grave

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Silence of the Grave
Author: Arnaldur Indriðason
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books,
October 2006
Length: 279 pages
ISBN: 0-312-34071-0
I always enjoy reading mysteries set in foreign lands for the extra fillip of a free armchair traveler experience. Lately I’ve embarked on Janwillem Van De Wetering’s fine and lively Amsterdam cops series. I own a collection of Georges Simenon’s classic Maigrets, which are some of the most tightly plotted of all police mysteries. A foray into modern post-Maoist China and colorful Mumbai were also on my reading list these last few years, not to mention John Burdett’s wild and crazy Bangkok stories.

Of course, if the zest of foreign adventure is the lure, I have no idea why I picked up Silence of the Grave, the second of Arnaldur Indridason’s police procedural series. While I haven’t yet sampled the latest hot stuff, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve read enough Martin Beck police procedurals to know the Nordics tend to run to dismal in their police procedurals.

Break out the Akvavit and have it on hand to cry into: Indridson’s black novel doesn’t buck the national trend of dour. The gloomy Martin Beck and his Swedish compatriots are positively jolly compared to the denizens of Indridason’s Rejkjavik. I’ll never look at those colorful painted houses in the travel brochures and feel the same way about the town now. Inside they’ve apparently got mattresses on the floor and hungry toddlers wandering around with untended urine rashes, ignored by their comatose junkie parents.

Silence of the Grave begins with the discovery of human bones dug up by accident in an up-and-coming modern subdivision. The bones are about 70 years old, but clearly the victim met foul play. Just how foul no one is sure, because the kid-glove archeologist digging out the grave doesn’t reveal the bones until nearly the last page.

The three detectives assigned to the case give it their best shot. An old chalet, now gone, stood on the site in the WWII era. First a British, then an American military base stood just over the hill. The three detectives in the case unravel a wartime crime, a tale of a missing pregnant fiancé and her distraught suitor during their journey down the stale trail. An abusive husband, a battered wife, two small sons and a crippled daughter lived in the now demolished chalet. The story of the dysfunctional family is told in flashbacks as the investigation unwinds.

Interleaved with the tale of the battered wife, monster husband and neurotic children are the lives of the three detectives. Detective Inspector Erlendur has a heroin-addict daughter who’s just had a miscarriage and is lying in a coma. Erlendur spends a lot of time talking to her, which he apparently never manages when she’s conscious. More than twenty years later, he still can’t answer why he walked out on her mother, his two-year-old daughter and their infant son — even to himself.

The younger male detective, the insensitive, selfish Sigurdur Oli, has been shacked up with his increasingly impatient lover for four years and is terrified of the threatening shackles of matrimony and unwanted offspring. (His story does end in a sort of happy-ever-after: he suggests canning the whole white wedding and kids idea in favor of me, thee, a trip to Paris and a sports car. Gee, guess who’ll get to drive that one to work).

The lone female in the group, Elinborg, gets short shrift in this tale, perhaps for the simple reason she’s the only half-way happy member of the team. No point in wasting copy there.

Of course, finely observed characterizations and writing elegant for its plainness are famous characteristics of the stereotypical Scandinavian mysteries, and I suppose Silence of the Grave doesn’t disappoint. The writing is plain to near-leaden in this one. And we learn more than we want to of those unhappy lives. The feckless, gormless men; the angry, bitter women; the ruined children... not much light in this story.

Only at the end do we get a glimmer, from the one child who overcame her unhappy childhood. By that time, I needed my glass to cry in. Strike Iceland off my future travel plans, and bring on the happy-ever-after Harlequins. I need one!

Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker

Home Page