Sunday, 12 October 2008
Tainted Blood - Arnaldur Indridason
Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason is the first book in the Icelandic mystery series featuring Detective Erlendur. I first encountered Erlendur when I read Silence of the Grave last year. It's the second book in the series, but all I could find at the time. I can't say enough good about this series, since I have been hooked since Silence of the Grave. I am so pleased that Tainted Blood is as good.
The book starts off quietly, with the discovery of a body in a basement apartment. After that, the mystery slowly builds as Erlendur and his team try to discover why the old man was killed. Erlendur is fascinating. He is an older detective, with a failed marriage behind him and lost touch with his children when they were little. One child has gotten in touch with him when the book opens. She is almost a failure, exactly like he is, personally, and like him, is very intelligent. It's not that Erlendur is a social outcast, far from it. He is part of the new breed of detectives in current mysteries, where their desire to solve a mystery takes them to places that precludes being able to sustain deep relationships. It's like looking into the human heart affects people, as it surely must: " You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled."
This is the longest speech in the book by Erlundur. When I read it, it got me thinking about how mysteries and detectives have changed from the beginning of the twentieth century to recent times. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had heroes who were single, who commented on life because they were outside of it. They could go where no one else who was 'ordinary' could go. Investigating mysteries - crime - assaults on people - meant that you couldn't engage in ordinary life after. For a very long time this continued through detective series and mysteries, although there were exceptions - Tommy and Tuppence Beresford from Agatha Christie, Nick and Nora Charles by the same Dashiell Hammett - which were foils to the theory, but because they were a team, the sense of loneliness was not part of their story as it is when the detective is single.
I admire both kinds of detective series - Tommy and Tuppence are part of two of my favourite Agatha Chirtie novels, N or M, and By the Pricking of my Thumbs, but I have a particular preference for the plumbing of the human heart, for the sense of righting a wrong that restores some sense of justice in the world. The single detective in particular stands for morality, and Erlendur is Iceland's contribution to this form of detective story. Even though he has a failed marriage, he does get along with his team - although when we finally meet his boss, it is hilarious how he undercuts him, so Erlendur is no pushover or hierarchical, by-the-books detective either. There is a great deal of intuition, that essential key to great detective work. There is also what I think is part of the Iceland character, the inheritance from the old Icelandic sagas, the idea of fate and gloom. How could a people live in darkness, and snow, for much of the year, and not be somewhat morose and gloomy? I like Erlendur. He is quiet, forceful, persistent, and human. I enjoy how he solves mysteries, with doggedness, and the desire to discover why. There are no car chase scenes, no mobsters, no city in peril here. Just a quiet mystery involving a man who turns out to be much worse, a monster, and the crime committed years ago still ripples through lives in the current day, as crimes do. These are contemplative books on human life, not shying away from the twists in human nature, and I am becoming a very big fan of this series. I have gone out and bought the next two (after Silence of the Grave) that have been translated, to read in the new year as my challenges end.
This is also part of my Orbis Terrarum challenge, so I've now read 5 books in this challenge.
You might think this is not a big change from reading horror, but for me it is. I was thinking over this week why it was, and the conclusion I've come to is that horror often is unresolved, whereas in most mystery books, there is a resolution, a restoring of justice, peace, the balance.
Next up: back to RIP3, and The House of Dr Dee by Peter Ackroyd.