Category Archives: Arnaldur Indriðason

Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling*

fear-of-the-darkWe all have our fears, and sometimes even phobias. One of the more common fears people have is fear of the dark. For those people, the scene in the ‘photo you see isn’t peaceful or romantic. It’s frightening. If you think about it, fear of the dark is understandable. Things and places look different in the dark, even if they’re familiar. Shadows can take on different dimensions and look a lot more threatening. And if you consider our origins as a species, there are certainly predators that came (and still come) out at night. So a heightened feeling of danger at night probably made sense. And plenty of people still prefer daylight.

That instinctive reaction to the dark plays a role in crime fiction, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Among other things, weaving fear of the dark into a story allows the author to create a tense atmosphere, and tap readers’ instincts. What’s more, adding in a fear of the dark can make for an interesting layer of character development.

Agatha Christie made use of that instinctive fear of the dark in And Then There Were None. In that novel, a group of people is invited for a trip to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised to learn that their host isn’t there. But they settle in as best they can. After dinner on that first night, each is accused of having been responsible for at least one other death. Just about everyone protests innocence; but later that evening, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The next morning, another is found dead. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island, and that the survivors are going to have to find out who it is if they’re to stay alive. At one point, a storm cuts off power, and everyone is affected. Even the more stalwart among the guests feel the need to keep the candles lit, and that feeling adds a real layer of tension to the story.

We see a similar situation in Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month. In that novel, a well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in the small Québec town of Three Pines. During her stay, she’s persuaded to hold a séance. The first attempt isn’t a success, so another is scheduled during the Easter break. It’s to be held at the old Hadley house, which fans of this series will remember. The atmosphere of the house is eerie enough (if you follow the series, you’ll know what I mean). And when everyone arrives, it’s only lit by candles:
 

‘The darkness seemed darker, and the flickering flames threw grotesque shadows against the rich wallpaper.’
 

The setting is creepy enough, but everything turns much worse when Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies of what turns out to be an overdose of a diet drug. The darkness, and our sense that it’s dangerous, is used effectively here.

Sometimes, fear of the dark can be a helpful clue to a person’s character. In one plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia, for instance, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur gets interested in the death of a woman named Maria. The first theory of the crime is that she hung herself out of despondence at the death of her mother, Leonóra, with whom she was extremely close. But Erlendur learns something very interesting: Maria was afraid of the dark, so she didn’t go out at night. Why, then, would she have left the house during the night to hang herself? It doesn’t quite add up for Erlendur and he pursues the case more deeply.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces readers to Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s been devastated by the death of her beloved husband, Stefan, and the trauma has had some powerful impacts on her. She is afraid of the dark, so she always keeps her home well-lit, even when she’s sleeping. Still, she functions well enough professionally, and has a stable list of clients. Then one day, she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone manages to get her case notes, so all of her confidential sessions are now accessible to her stalker. It’s not long before she is sure that someone is watching her; now, the very lights that make her feel safe at night may actually be making her more vulnerable. Matters get far worse when the body of a client, Sara Matteus, is found in the water on Bergman’s property. And there’s a suicide note that links the death to Bergman. At first, she is a suspect. But soon enough, it’s clear she’s being framed. So, she has to work to find out who the killer is and why she’s being set up.

R.J. Harlick’s sleuth is Meg Harris, who inherited a property called Three Deer Point, in Outaouais, in Western Québec. Meg’s recently left an abusive relationship, so when the series starts (with Death’s Golden Whisper), she’s still dealing with that trauma. And her ex-husband, Gareth, is not as eager to let go of their relationship as Meg is. It all makes for a great deal of stress, which isn’t made any easier when Meg gets caught up in a land rights dispute and a case of multiple murder. One of the lasting effects of being with an abusive partner is that Meg is afraid of the dark. It doesn’t completely debilitate her, but it’s definitely there.

And that’s the thing about fear of the dark. It may not be completely debilitating, but for a lot of people, it’s real. And for some people, it’s incapacitating.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buck Ram, Morty Nevins, Al Nevins, and Artie Dunn’s Twilight Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Louise Penny, R.J. Harlick

We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow*

Arctic ClimatesOne of the things about living in an extreme climate is that priorities can be quite different to what they are where it’s more temperate. The people who live in such climates have adapted to them, because they know that nature can be very unforgiving.

Some of the harshest living conditions in the world can be found in and near the Arctic Circle. For one thing, it’s dark or twilight-ish for half the year, and there’s no real sundown for the other half. For another, there are the temperatures and weather conditions. And yet, people live there and have created societies there. And there’s crime there, too – at least fictional crime.

Arctic-Circle crime fiction arguably has an added layer of suspense because of the element of the climate. And that can create tension and even conflict in a plot. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the great crime fiction that features that part of the world, but here are a few examples to encourage you to reach for that parka and light the fire.

We get a look at life on Ellesmere Island and the vicinity in M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels. Kiglatuk is a half-Inuit hunting guide – one of the best there is. She’s learned how to survive under all sorts of conditions, and she knows how to make the most of whatever’s available. In these novels, we learn not just what it’s like to be a hunting guide, but also what life is like in the communities of Ellesmere Island. The diet of the people who live there is quite different to what it is in more temperate places, and people rely on small planes and radio to get supplies and information in and out of the area. There’s a distinct culture there, and a real difference between the people who live in that area, and those who come from more southern parts of Canada.

Scott Young wrote two mysteries, Murder in a Cold Climate and The Shaman’s Knife, featuring Inspector Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP. In Murder in a Cold Climate, he investigates the shooting death of Native activist Morton Cavendish at the tiny airport in Inuvik. In The Shaman’s Knife, he investigates two murders that occur in Sanirarsipaaq, a tiny Inupiaq settlement on Victoria Island. In both novels, we see how the climate impacts people’s lives. For one thing, there’s a lot of use of small planes, sleds and snowmobiles, since the roads aren’t reliable. For another, there’s a certain sort of hospitality that’s extended. People don’t have much of a chance at survival if they’re outdoors for too long, so it’s the custom to look out for others, if I can put it that way. There are other subtle and not-so-subtle ways, too, in which Young conveys the realities of life in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Life’s just as tough across the border in Alaska, and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series makes shows readers what it’s like there. Active is an Inuit who was raised by adoptive parents in Anchorage. Now an Alaska State Trooper, he’s been reassigned to Chukchi, where his birth mother happens to live. So, beginning with White Sky, Black Ice, Active learns more about his own people, and his identity as an Inuit. The people of Chukchi are faced with the same harsh climate as are the people of the Northwest Territories. So in these novels, too, we see plenty of use of small planes and snowmobiles instead of cars. Just as interesting, people rely on radio to get messages to one another. Even personal messages are sent via Chukchi’s public radio station, nicknamed Kay-Chuck. And that makes sense, in a place where telephone signals aren’t reliable, if they’re even available. Jones also depicts some of the non-climate challenges that the people of Chukchi face. (Un)employment, alcohol and drug abuse, and culture loss are some of the issues that are addressed in these novels. Despite them, though, we see how well-adapted the Inupiaq are to their environment. For another look at life in Alaska, there’s also the work of Dana Stabenow. She’s written two series about that part of the world One features PI Kate Shugak; the other features Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we are introduced to Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. In the course of events in this novel, she returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help an old friend, and ends up getting involved in a dangerous murder investigation. This series follows Martinsson, as well as police inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. Kiruna is a small place with its own distinct culture. The people who live there have adapted themselves to the harsh climate, and adjusted to life in a place where it’s dark or twilight for half the year.

One of the more interesting looks at that harsh, Arctic climate comes from Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer. This story takes place mostly in a dystopian-future Helsinki. Climate change has wreaked havoc on the planet, and left millions of people homeless refugees. So the city has become overcrowded and the police are badly understaffed. As a result, Helsinki is descending into anarchy. Those who can do so are leaving for the north of Finland, where a decent life is still thought possible. In that situation, people aren’t really as concerned about the harsh climate, because of the way the planet has changed, and because it’s at least better than the city. Against this backdrop moves Tapani Lehtinen, a writer whose journalist wife Johanna has gone missing. She was working on a major story about a man who calls himself The Healer. He’s taken responsibility for several murders of CEOs and their families – people he blames for the current conditions on Earth. Lehtenin believes that if he can follow the leads his wife was following, he’ll find her. As he searches, he runs into much more and bigger danger than he’d thought.

And I don’t think I could do a post about Arctic climates without mentioning Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur. As it happens, Reykjavík is the northernmost capital of a sovereign state. So, as you can imagine, Erlendur and his team have to contend more than once with the elements. In fact, fans of this series can tell you that one of the story arcs in this series is Erlendur’s ongoing search for his brother Bergur, who was lost in a blizzard when the brothers were boys. Blizzards in that part of the world are savage, so it’s not surprising that no trace of Bergur was found. It’s haunted Erelendur ever since.

And that’s the thing about Arctic climates. They can be extremely harsh and unforgiving. And yet, people make lives there, and create rich social structures. Which Arctic-set novels and series have you enjoyed?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Larsson, Dana Stabenow, M.J. McGrath, Scott Young, Stan Jones

I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish*

DNFIf you read enough, sooner or later you’ll run across a book that you shove aside in exasperation, or even disgust. I think it happens to us all. There are a lot of reasons this might happen, of course. And the challenge for authors, editors and publishers is that different readers are put off by different things.

That said, though, there are some things that really do seem to pull readers right out of a story. One of those things – and the most important thing to some readers – is credibility. And there are all sorts of ways in which you can conceive of that word. For instance, readers want their characters to ‘feel’ real. They don’t, as a rule, want characters to have superhuman powers, or behave in ways that aren’t logical, given that character’s personality.

That’s one reason, for instance, why many people find Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch an appealing character. He’s a police detective, not a superhero. He’s a normal sort of person. He certainly has his issues, but he pays the consequences when he makes mistakes (and those mistakes add to his credibility).

It’s not just characters, though. Readers also like plot elements to ring true. And that’s possible even in thrillers. For example, Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, makes the well-taken point that the most engaging thrillers focus on catastrophes that could really happen. He’s right. And he mentions Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear (a novel I’ve not yet read, I admit) as an example of a thriller that is quite credible in that way.

Another element that can pull a reader out of a book is a lack of appealing characters. And, interestingly a character doesn’t have to be someone you’d like in person in order to be appealing.  But most readers want at least one character they care about – whose fate actually matters to them. It doesn’t bode well for a book if the reader doesn’t care whether a crime is solved or not, because both the victim and the sleuth are so annoying that it doesn’t really matter what happens to either.

And that’s one reason for which Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Inspector Erlendur has been so highly regarded. As we learn about the different members of Erlendur’s team, those characters become fleshed out, and it’s easy for readers to care about what happens to them. The same is true for the various victims, witnesses and ‘people of interest’ in the Erlendur novels. Many readers find that they care about what happens to those people, and want to know what happened to the victims.

There’s also the matter of length (you were waiting for this one, weren’t you?). A book that’s very long runs the risk of being plodding. And when a plot drags on, with nothing to keep the reader’s interest, this makes the reader more likely to disengage. I’ll bet you’ve all had the experience of wading through far too many pages of description, so that you got thoroughly fed up.

That said, this doesn’t mean that a long book can’t also be really absorbing. C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels are long. So are Hilary Mantel’s (which, interestingly enough, take place during the same time period). And so is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. And I’ll bet your personal list of top authors includes some who’ve written long books. It complicates matters, too, that we all have different ideas about what counts as a book that’s too long. But for the most part, readers want a plot to move along.

They also want a plot that doesn’t depend on a lot of extreme violence and brutality. Violence is, of course, pretty much inherent in crime fiction for obvious reasons. But violence for its own sake puts a lot of readers off.

Many of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels are violent. And MacDonald doesn’t gloss over the ugliness, either. But at the same time, it’s not protracted violence. Fans will also tell you that the violence serves the plot. It’s not there for its own sake. That’s arguably one of the reasons that this series has had such lasting appeal. Of course, violence is another quite subjective element. The answer to the question, ‘How much is too much?’ often depends on which reader you ask.

And then there’s the matter of what readers think is offensive. If you’ve ever read a book that’s full of ‘isms’ that bother you, you know what I mean. Or, perhaps you’ve read a book with a lot of language that offends you, or with explicitness that you don’t like. Those kinds of things can really upset readers, so that they’re no longer interested in the story at all. Like everything else, what counts as ‘offensive’ varies, sometimes a lot. That doesn’t make it easy for authors, editors and publishers. But readers know what upsets them, and they will stop reading if a book pushes that ‘envelope.’

What about you? What’s the quickest route to the DNF pile for you? Let me know if you’d like in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again in a week or so. Psst… You can choose more than one element in this poll if you want to.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Smiths.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, C.J. Sansom, Drew Chapman, Hilary Mantel, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly

You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

LooseLipsThere’s wisdom to the old wartime saying, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ A person may mean well, and may even agree to keep quiet about something. But the right setting, the right atmosphere and the right confidant can get people to say things they otherwise might not. And there are those who enjoy the feeling of seeming important – to whom boasting might come naturally.

In crime fiction, anyway, saying too much can get a person into real trouble. For the police, it can put an investigation in jeopardy. For a criminal, it can lead to getting caught. And in any case, it can lead to murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds. She and several other people are at the home of Rowena Drake one afternoon, getting ready for a Hallowe’en party to be held there that night. One of the others at that gathering is detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s staying locally with a friend. When Joyce finds out who Mrs. Oliver is, she boasts that she herself saw a murder. Nobody believes her, and at first everyone hushes her up. But Joyce continues to insist that she’s telling the truth. Many people there put those remarks down to the efforts of a young girl to get the attention of a famous writer. But that evening, during the party, Joyce is murdered. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he travels to the village of Woodleigh Common to do so. It now seems clear that what Joyce said got someone frightened enough to kill, and that the peaceful town may very well be hiding a murderer.

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly harmless older man named Holberg. At first, the case looks like a home invasion gone very wrong. But a few clues suggest that this was a deliberate killing. If that’s the case, then the more the team members know about Holberg, the more likely they are to find his killer. So they start to dig into the victim’s past. What they find is not at all pleasant, either. It turns out that Holberg has a history that includes multiple rapes. To check up on this, they have a conversation with a man named Ellidi, who’s been in regular trouble with the law and is currently in prison. Ellidi has this to say about Holberg:
 

‘Holberg liked talking about it [one particular rape incident]. Boasted. Got away with it.’
 

It soon turns out that more than one person could easily have wanted Holberg dead.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, who is an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of this novel, she is concerned about a student of hers, Kellee Savage, who has missed several classes lately. The last time anyone saw Kellee was one night when several students were at a local bar. The evening ended in disaster when someone noticed that Kellee had secretly been recording everyone’s conversation. Kilbourn follows up on what happened that night, and what was said. It turns out that Kellee had been drinking heavily, and said some things that would have been far better left unsaid. Later, those comments have their consequences.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas concerns Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children, ex-pat Americans who have moved to a small town in Normandy. As we learn, though, the Blakes are not the people they seem. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. In return for testifying against his fellow gangsters, Manzoni was placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, along with the members of his family. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of what’s happened, it’s vital that all of the ‘Blakes’ keep quiet about everything related to that part of their lives. And at first, all goes well enough, although there’s plenty of ‘culture shock’ as they get used to living in Normandy. Then, the ‘rule of silence’ is broken, and word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey. Now, getting along in a different country is the least of the family’s troubles.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person expert Diane Rowe learns of the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. This death has special significance for her, because it’s suspected that Snow killed Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. Before his death, that suspicion was confirmed. Snow confessed that he’d been hired to commit that murder; he even boasted of his skill. Now he’s been killed in the same way. Rowe reasons that if she can find out who hired (and, presumably, killed) Snow, she’ll also learn who paid Snow to kill her sister.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Zero At the Bone, the second of his novels featuring former Perth Police Superintendent Frank Swann. It’s the late 1970’s, and Swann is dealing with the fallout from events in the first novel (Line of Sight  – recommended, by the way). One of the consequences of that fallout is that he’s not working as a copper. In one plot thread of this novel, another former police officer, Percy Dickson, hires Swann to help him get to the truth about a series of robberies. Dickson is head of security at one local department store, and consults with several others, and with some local jewelers. So for him, a series of robberies like this will mean the end of his job. Swann agrees to look into the matter, and in fact, finds out the truth about the thieves. This particular truth is very dangerous, though, and Dickson is under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about how the stolen merchandise was recovered, or even that the case has been solved. Unfortunately for both Dickson and Swann, Dickson makes mention of it to the wrong people…

And that’s the problem with unguarded words, whether they’re casual comments, boasts, drunken remarks, or things said in anger. They can get people in a lot of trouble. These are only a few examples; over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Gail Bowen, Tonino Benacquista

What I Am is What I Am*

Nature and NurtureIn Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her rather unpleasant lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. One evening, Poirot is invited to a party and later, joins a group of people who’ve gathered at the home of one of the characters, Laura Upward. During a discussion about the care and breeding of Irish Wolfhounds, Mrs. Upward says,
 

‘Environment can give a veneer – no more. It’s what’s bred in people that counts.’
 

Without spoiling the story, I can say that this question of ‘nature vs nurture’ is one of the elements in this novel.

And it’s not surprising. The question of what impacts us the most, our environment or heredity, has fascinated people for centuries. It’s been the driving force behind countless studies.

The answer to the question, of course, is quite complicated. People are complex, and impacted by many factors. Heredity is one, and so is environment. So are other forces as well. But despite the fact that we know it’s not as simple as ‘nature or nurture,’ people still debate that issue, and explore it in writing.

Certainly it’s there in crime fiction. Christie discussed it in several of her stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, of Appointment With Death, and of The Murder on the Links). There are lots of other examples, too.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City takes up the topic of nature and nurture and what it all means, too. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. At first the case looks like a robbery gone very wrong. But there are a few clues that suggest that this was a deliberate killing. So the next step is to look at the people in the victim’s current life, as well as those in his past. And as it turns out, Holberg was quite possibly not as harmless and innocent as he seemed. As the police team digs into his background, they find some ugly allegations of rape and attempted rape. There’s even a possibly-related case of suicide that seems to have had its roots in Holberg’s past. Among other things, it’s an interesting exploration of the environment/heredity issue.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team raises the question of nature v nurture in Blue Monday. In that novel, London psychologist Frieda Klein gets a new client, Alan Dekker. He has all sorts of emotional and other issues, one of which is his dream of having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. He and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. So he and Klein start the difficult work of exploring his past, his feelings about adoption, and his beliefs about heredity and environment. Then comes the disturbing news that four-year-old Matthew Farady has gone missing. DI Malcom Karlsson and his team begin the investigation immediately, but nothing turns up. When Klein hears of the boy’s disappearance, she begins to worry, first subconsciously and then actively, that it might be connected in some way with the work she’s doing with Dekker. It’s risky from the perspective of professional ethics, but Klein lets Karlsson know of her concerns. They begin to look more deeply into the case and, little by little, each in a different way, they find out the truth. They also find out how it relates to another disappearance from twenty years earlier.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is a political scientist and academician. She is also the adoptive mother of Taylor, who is a gifted artist. Taylor’s birth mother Sally Love was also a gifted artist, and Taylor has had her issues in coming to terms with her own talent and what that means about her connection to her birth mother. She’s been raised in the Kilbourn/Shreve home for almost all of her life, so she certainly is impacted by the influence from that experience, too. One of the challenges she faces as she begins the journey to adulthood is to sort out her personal self and reconcile her heredity and the environment in which she’s lived.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That novel explores the relationship between Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has always been both seductive and manipulative, able to get anything. And she’s not above doing whatever it takes, including murder, to go after what she wants. On one level, Christine has always known what her mother was like. But she’s been raised in that environment, and has a complicated relationship with Eve. Everything changes, though, when Christine notices that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to be drawn into the same dangerous web. Now she has to come to terms with the person Eve is and the person she herself has become, and find a way a way to free herself and Ryan. Among other things, this novel shows just how intermingled and ‘muddy’ the relationship between heredity and environment can really be.

A lot of research shows that we are products of both our heredity and our environment in a lot of complicated and integrated ways. So it’s really not sufficient to say that one or the other is the most important factor in what we are. Still, many people find that question absolutely fascinating, and there are certainly a lot of stories that address it. I’ve not mentioned some of those I had in mind, for fear of giving away spoilers. But I’ll bet you know of plenty yourself.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell’s What I Am.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gail Bowen, Nicci French, Patricia Abbott