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Synir Duftsins

Originally published in October 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 35 in my first 52 books challenge.

As you can see below, this review was written before Arnaldur won the Gold Dagger award and the movie was made. This book - the first in the Erlendur series - has still not been translated into English, and probably never will. In the book, the cops are named Erlendur and Sigurður Óli, but they are really just stereotypes of the older, experienced cop and the by-the-book rookie, and have not been fleshed out like they are in the other books. In addition, the story has a strong science fiction element that was very relevant to a discussion of ethics in science that was going on in Icelandic society at the time, and would pretty much go over the heads of foreign readers unfamiliar with the situation.

English title (my translation): Sons of the Dust
Author: Arnaldur Indriðason
Year published: 1997
Genre: Crime
Sub-genre(s): Mystery
Where got: National Library

Before Arnaldur Indriðason wrote this book, original crime novels written in Icelandic were few and far between. It seemed as if the genre had no place in Icelandic reality, as big crimes here tend to be open and shut cases and murders are few. The feeling was that Icelanders simply couldn’t imagine Agatha Christie-style mysteries or Hammett-type hard-boiled crime taking place on their peaceful island. Then Arnaldur and another author, Stella Blómkvist (pseudonym), both published quite good crime novels in the same year, and the genre has been blossoming ever since.
Arnaldur’s books have been translated into several languages and he has twice won the Glass Key, the Crime Writers of Scandinavia Award for the best Nordic crime novel.

As far as I know, Synir Duftsins has not been translated into English, but his most popular book to date, Mýrin, is available from under the title Jar City.

The Story:
Two seemingly unrelated deaths occur in the same day: a psychiatric patient kills himself and an old man is found burned to death, apparently murdered. The suicide’s brother is struck by something he said just before he died, and starts investigating, and two detectives try to solve the murder case. The two cases soon turn out to be related: the younger man was a former student of the older, and the only (known) one of his male classmates still alive, the others having died young from mysterious heart attacks, drug overdoses and suicide. The deaths seem related to suspicious “nutritional” pills given to the classmates by the teacher one winter, and both the brother and the detectives want to find out what was really in those pills. When the brother receives an envelope with cassettes containing conversations between the two men from just before they died, the case breaks open and the investigation becomes centered on a pharmaceutical company. What they learn is beyond anything they could have imagined…

Technique and plot:
This is an obvious first novel. I would guess that 70% of it is dialogue, but even so it is quite good. The dialogue serves to carry on the story, much of which happens in the past. Rather than tell the past in flashbacks (there are some, but not many) Arnaldur has people tell about it in their own words. The language is somewhat over-literary, even for the elderly people who tell much of the backstory.

The two detectives are well-known prototypes: the tired and grumpy older man who gets by on experience and knowledge of human nature and doesn’t always follow procedure, and the ambitious young rookie who does everything by the book but isn’t so good with people, i.e. the typical pair of detectives that make a great team because they are so different from each other.

The story takes place in modern Icelandic society, which presents certain problems: everybody knows everybody and a certain type of reader will always try to guess who this or that person is based on. Arnaldur is dealing with some pretty big issues that have been discussed a lot in Icelandic society in recent years, like cloning and genetic research. He manages pretty well to create all new characters, institutions and companies, instead of falling into the trap of making them too similar to the real-life counterparts that they are inspired by, making this a kind of alternate reality that nevertheless is very realistic, at least in its descriptions of Icelandic society. The conspiracy plot is totally over the top and somewhat out of synch with the realistic tone of the rest of the book, but since this is a crime thriller and not a documentary, it is forgiveable.

A good beginning to a crime-writer’s career, and they keep getting better. 3 stars.

P.S. I read Mýrin (Jar City) yesterday, and it’s a definite 5 star read. The characters of the two detectives and the people surrounding them have developed and become more rounded and real, and there is no big conspiracy in this book like the previous two, rather it is a pure, tragic crime story.


Dorte H said…
It´s interesting that English bloggers always ask for the first novels of foreign writers to be translated while the writers sometimes may have reasons to hope this will not happen!

I have read Jo Nesbø´s debut, and though it is not a bad book, it is not nearly of the same quality as the novels that have been translated into English.
Bibliophile said…
I think it's a form of completionism, like wanting to read a series all in order of publication. In the case of Arnaldur, the second book, Dauðaráosir ("Dødens Roser", "Death's Roses") will probably not be translated either because of cultural problems that it would take a treatise on Icelandic history to make foreigners really understand.

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