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Friday, December 12, 2014

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason

Picador, 336 pages, $16

Arnaldur Indridason, the go-to Icelandic crime writer, published “Black Skies” in 2009 in Iceland, right in the midst of the economic meltdown of Iceland’s financial structure. Those were wild days when bankers and investors were hauling in the krónur until the three major banks failed when they couldn’t refinance their debt. In “Black Skies” the bubble hasn’t quite burst, but one of the storylines deals with the greed that put Iceland in a cold pickle.

Indridason’s main character, Inspector Erlender, is strangely absent in this book. He is mentioned by colleagues and family in passing, wondering where he is and when he will be back. However, this gives Sigurdur Óli, Erlender’s conservative, rigid colleague, a shot at the limelight. Instead of being a one-note foil for Erlender, Sigurdur Óli takes a moral journey of his own, with the three cases highlighted in this book as his background.

Sigurdur Óli is asked by a friend to “talk” to a couple who has been blackmailing the friend’s sister- and brother-in-law. What the heck, he decides, and drops by the couple’s home. The door is open and there is a dying woman in a ransacked front room. Sigurdur Óli barely misses being clobbered himself by the escaping marauder. Since he can’t easily explain what he was doing at the couple’s home, he hems and haws and attaches himself to the official investigation.

When the woman dies, convinced they had nothing to do with her death, Sigurdur Óli tries to deflect blame from his friend’s family. He finds a suspicious connection between the woman and a hiking trip that ended in the death of one of the hikers. All the hikers are bankers and the more Sigurdur Óli digs, the more is uncovered, but maybe not necessarily having to do with the current murder victim.

In the final storyline, Andres, a young man with a troubled past and addictions galore, tries to pull Sigurdur Óli into helping him with some sort of tortured scenario. Andres is rarely lucid but when he sends Sigurdur Óli a few seconds of film that show a young boy being assaulted, Sigurdur Óli’s wizened heart is moved. Andres proves elusive throughout the book, and his story becomes evident to Sigurdur Óli in pieces until a final tragic scene that closes “Black Skies.”

Sigurdur Óli is ending his relationship with his wife. He realizes, too late, that he was at fault. He traverses the complicated relationship between his mother and father, long divorced, and discovers several uncomfortable revelations about himself in the process.

This is a chance very few secondary characters have: to have their lives fleshed out and given a sympathetic hearing. Sigurdur Óli makes the most of it.

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