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by Arnaldur Indri­ason and Victoria Cribb, trans.
Harvill Secker, September 2014
304 pages
$24.99 CAD
ISBN: 1846558131

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Prequels are a peculiar enterprise. When opening what will turn out to be the first in a long and distinguished series, readers know less about the protagonist than the author does, of course, but the author knows much less about that character than he or she will by the time he retires or dies after a lengthy and eventful career. A prequel presents a different problem. Everything pretty much is known about the protagonist by both author and fans before the prequel is so much as published. Little that is truly surprising can be revealed or the reader will wonder why it never emerged in the first place.

So what's the point of prequels? Any series protagonist who has achieved a devoted following will be sorely missed by both readers and often I suspect, by their authors. Some of course, like Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, grow to loathe their progeny and cannot wait to see the back of them, or so they claim, but contrive their reappearances nonetheless, presumably to satisfy readers' demands. But in general, I imagine, the reluctance on the part of readers to consign their favourites to oblivion is met by the authors' sense that there is a little more there to be said, something or other that could have been done better or more deeply. Thus the prequel scratches two sorts of itch.

So it is with REYKJAV═K NIGHTS, in which Arnaldur takes us back to Erlendur's early days on the police force. It appears to be the early 70s from the very few clues that the author drops - references to Ironsides for example, or Beatles haircuts or Slade - but it's difficult to know just when these might have hit Iceland with force. Erlendur is not yet a detective - he spends his nights (he's on the night shift) attending to traffic accidents, drunken brawls, and the occasional incidence of domestic violence. He's not kept very busy. The crime rate in ReykjavÝk is very low and lawbreakers tend to be unimaginative. Policing seems a less than glamorous career and we don't really learn why Erlendur chose that path, except that it paid better than his first job in the fishery.

But we do find out why he will succeed as a policeman. He has an unusual empathy with down and outers, with the homeless, the drunk, the sad, and the missing. When Hannibal, an alcoholic who had been sleeping rough in an open pipe line turns up drowned, officials are happy to chalk his death up to accident, but Erlendur knew the man and cannot let go of him that easily. It takes some time but eventually, after doggedly pursuing scraps of information about the man and his past, after testing out various failed hypotheses, Erlendur can finally put the case to rest. Likewise, he is nagged by missing persons cases. He's been trawling police archives on the lookout for these in addition to devouring news stories of the disappeared, past and present. Two women are recently missing in ReykjavÝk at the moment and Erlendur wants very much to find out what happened to them.

The story of Erlendur's first committed relationship, with a woman named Halldˇra, sheds some light on why Erlendur ended up alone at the end of his life and we also learn that his fondness for particularly malodorous Icelandic food specialties is rooted in a rejection of American fast food and the weakening of Icelandic national identity in general.

In short, Erlendur at twenty-eight is not very different from Erlendur in his sixties. The survivor's guilt that drove him throughout his career as a detective was already present in him even before he entered the force. His closely-guarded emotions, his difficulty in forming intimate relationships or expressing affection have been there from the first. Like the volcanos that shaped Iceland, he has managed to encase his inner fires inside a rock-hard shell; unlike them, he seems doomed never to erupt.

Therefore, if you have never read the Erlendur series, this is not the place to start. Begin at the beginning, if you can, with JAR CITY and go on to the end. You won't regret it. Then read the prequel, in its proper, if not chronological place in Erlendur's life story. And then, very probably, you will hope that Arnaldur still has an itch to scratch and another prequel to satisfy it.

ž Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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