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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Draining Lake (hardcover, $24.95), by Arnaldur Indridason

How strange to have read two books in less than a week that use disappearing lakes as the vehicle to begin the mystery! The Labyrinth Makers, written by Anthony Price and published in 1970, begins with the appearance of a WWII plane as lake water recedes. And this is also how Icelandic author Indridason's novel begins.

Kleifarvatn, the lake of Indridason's title, mysteriously begins to lower. A hydrologist monitoring the drop discovers a human skeleton buried in the muck. Perhaps that would be bizarre enough in and of itself, but it is also tethered to a broken covert monitoring apparatus once used by Eastern Bloc countries at the height of the Cold War. The reader can make the assumption that the victim belonged to the shadowy world of spies. But in Iceland?

Although Iceland declared neutrality during WWII, it eventually hosted a NATO military base, which the United States helped construct and which it then used as a naval post. Despite the end of the war and a request by the Icelandic government that the military base be dismantled, the United States continued to maintain a presence off and on through the years. However, throughout the Cold War, Iceland also allowed some Eastern Bloc countries to establish embassies. Furthermore, many of Iceland's citizens were committed socialists and were schooled in Communist East Germany. It is this background that provides the kernel of Indridason's tale.

This is the fourth book in the series featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Indridason's first book in the series, Jar City, won the Gold Dagger, the premier British mystery award.

Alternating with the story of the current investigation are the reminiscences of an unknown man. We learn as his story continues that he is one of the young socialists who went to Leipzig to study. We are not sure whether he became a spy on behalf of the East Germans, turned against socialism when faced with the reality of its implementation in East Germany, or just shrugged all politics off when he returned to Iceland. We can only assume that in some way he is related to the skeleton in the lakebed.

The tale of Erlendur's investigation is mixed with the continuing back story of his attempts to re-ignite his relationship with his estranged adult children. His daughter is a drug addict and his son is angry and alienated. Erlendur's awkwardness in parenting his children so late in their lives is written with a depth of realism that makes the reader want to write a letter to him that begins, "Now see here, this is what you should do." But we know he will struggle on in future tales and it will provide a fascinating aside to the main story.

Indridason has thrown another tasty bone to the reader in the form of Erlendur's former boss, Marion Briem. Joining the genderless figures of Saturday Night Live's "Pat" and mystery author Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar, Marion is an enigmatic character who lacks a pronoun. In the current tale, Marion seems to be on death's door. He/she is confined by illness to an apartment and tethered to an oxygen machine a good deal of the time. In what appears to tip the scale in one direction, Marion requests that Erlendur obtain a John Wayne movie for him/her to watch. We imagine Indridason sitting in his book-strewn study, smiling as he wrote that. (Fire up that Wikipedia entry on John Wayne, pilgrims!)

Indridason's books are compelling because of his complex characters and the evocative depiction of Iceland as more than our stereotyped assumption that it is an arctic wasteland where the sun either is shining too much or not at all. Finally, kudos to a smooth translation by Bernard Scudder, who makes it seem as though the book must have been written originally in English.

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