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Mystery review: Harðskafi by Arnaldur Indriðason

The English title of this book will be Hypothermia. According to Amazon UK it will be published in Britain in September.

The Icelandic title is the name of a mountain in the area where Erlendur is supposed to have grown up, meaning something like “a bare and sharp-edged mountain”. It has a bearing on events from Erlendur’s past that have been mentioned in previous books. Interestingly (at least from a linguistic viewpoint) another meaning of harðskafi is close to the meaning of the English word hardscrabble, and I am sure it is no coincidence that the two words sound similar.

Genre: Mystery, police procedural
Year of publication: 2007
No. in series: 8
Series detective: Detective Erlendur Sveinsson
Setting & time: Reykjavík and Þingvellir, Iceland; contemporary

A woman discovers her friend’s body hanging from a beam in a summer house by lake Þingvallavatn. She seems to have killed herself, but the friend is convinced she would never have done that. This is enough for Erlendur, who has little to do at work, to begin an informal investigation under the pretense of a research project on the causes of suicide. At the same time he is preoccupied by two old missing persons cases: that of a young man in his last year of sixth form college, and a slightly older female university student, both of whom disappeared around the same time, 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, his private life is complicated by his daughter’s insistence that he meet with his ex-wife and make peace with her, and his colleagues (who are otherwise not involved in the story) think his preoccupation with what they see as three suicides, is morbid and unprofessional.

As in some of the previous books, this story takes place in winter, and the atmosphere is correspondingly gloomy. Erlendur himself, on the other hand, is a bit less glum than usual, and I would describe his mood in the story as pensive rather than depressed. While the season is not as important a presence as in Voices and Arctic Chill (where it is like one of the characters), there is nevertheless a definite feeling of coldness that underlines Erlendur’s memories of an event in his youth that changed his whole life (I’m not saying anything more, in case this is read by someone who has not read any of the books before) and explains why he is so interested in the missing persons.

As in some of the previous books, we get to see the past in flashbacks, in this instance events in the dead woman’s life leading up to her death, seen from her point of view, but she never becomes as engaging a character as some of the others have. She is pitiful and a victim by nature, but I still found her hard to sympathise with.

The story at first seems to move very slowly as Erlendur painstakingly goes over details and questions people, but the slowness is deceptive. Every chapter holds one or more pieces of the puzzles and nothing is held back from the reader, who is given a level playing field against Erlendur, with full access to his discoveries and thought processes. All the time the tension is mounting, almost unnoticed, until before you know it the story is racing ahead at speed.

As with some of the other Erlendur stories, there is no such thing here as perfect justice, and the ending may be disappointing to some, in more than one way.

Rating: Another excellent mystery one from Iceland’s King of Crime. 4+ stars.

This is the third book I finish in the Mystery reader Café challenge: the story taking place in my area.


Anonymous said…
We are all really looking forward to this book - and it will be interesting to see how the new translator copes, after the sad death of Bernard Scudder (the last book to be translated, Arctic Chill, was a combined effort becuse Bernard S must have died while in the middle of the job).

I daren't read your review now, I must come back to it after I have read the book.

Do you have any idea why his first two novels have never been translated into English?
Bibliophile said…
Maxine, I don't know why they haven't been translated, but I suppose the British and American publishers have some reason.
Barbara said…
I asked Arnaldur about this once. He is such a low-key guy, he seemed to think maybe they just weren't as good as Jar City and the subsequent books. I also seem to recall that he wasn't thinking in terms of a series with the first book and Erlendur wasn't the main character - and there were some slightly science fictionish elements to it. (??? or so my faulty memory says.) I do know that it was the third book, Jar City, that became a big sensation at the Frankfurt Book Fair and lots of rights were sold as a result.
Bibliophile said…
Barbara, there was indeed some science (or speculative) fiction in the first book, and Erlendur was not much developed as a character. The only thing that really connects him with the Erlendur in the later books is the name. The second book is okay, but not outstanding.

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