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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

Picador, 336 pages, $16 (c2002)

Icelanders are only concerned with first names, I’ve discovered by reading Arnaldur’s books. The last names, for the most part, are patronymic, reflecting a person’s father’s or, more unusually, mother’s name, so carrying on family surnames is rare. Unusual first names are also rare, since all first names must be vetted by the Icelandic Naming Committee.

“Voices” is the fifth book in Arnaldur’s series featuring police detective Erlendur, but the first two books have never been translated into English. Not all of Iceland, despite an insistent assumption on our part, is uniformly icebound and cold. In “Voices,” the setting is Reykjavik near Christmas, and the streets are bare until just before Christmas when the snow begins to fall.

Icelandic food sounds very exotic; there’s a lot of talk about ox tongue and boiling various animal parts for Christmas. Erlendur is thinking about traditionally boiling roast lamb for his dinner. There’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jar City,” Arnaldur’s first book translated into English, involving a sheep’s head.

Apparently foreigners love to travel to Reykjavik to celebrate Christmas. The murder in “Voices” takes place in a swanky hotel that offers a holiday buffet laden with Icelandic food. The only parts of the hotel that aren’t swanky, it seems, are the basement where the dead body is found in a cubbyhole of a room in which the victim was living and the heatless room Erlendur takes while he investigates the case.

Gudlaugur was the hotel’s doorman, handyman, and Santa Claus. No one knows anything about him, except that he had been at the hotel a long time. He was found partially clad in his Santa suit, in a compromising position. Erlendur and his mainstay cohorts must tease out facts about the doorman. They finally discover something amazing about Gudlaugur’s past, but does it have anything to do with his death?

Arnaldur presents such a tantalizing picture of Reykjavik and the culture there in his books. He adds to that an intense thread that runs throughout the series: Something from Erlendur’s own past is haunting him as he works on this case. As his personal life is befuddled by his past, his drug-addicted daughter, and a budding romance with a forensic scientist, Erlendur’s tangled story becomes just as much the focus as the murder.

Although I’ve bounced around in reading this series, I’ve enjoyed each one. The food may be unusual, but the emotions that engender murder are not.

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