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Readers who have been following the career of Iceland's Detective Erlendur will know of his unresolved internal conflicts stemming from an event that occurred when he was just ten years old. Out searching for a lost sheep with his father and his little brother Bergur when a sudden blizzard set in, Erlendur lost hold of his brother's hand. The two were separated from their father and when the storm finally lifted and the family was reunited, Bergur was missing. Missing he has remained over all the intervening years, but he remains firmly present in Erlendur's mind.
In order finally to resolve his feelings connected to this loss, Erlendur has taken a leave of absence and has been wandering mysteriously over eastern Iceland, the scene of the family tragedy. Rumours of his whereabouts have filtered back to Reykjavik, where his fellow police officers, each of whom have a novel to themselves (Elínborg , OUTRAGE; Sigurdur Óli, BLACK SKIES), are taking care of business and occasionally wondering about the boss's absence. Though published a year apart, these two novels take place in the same year and so, it appears, does STRANGE SHORES.
The novel opens with a brief chapter in which a man lies dying of hypothermia in a half-destroyed and abandoned farmhouse. He slips in and out of consciousness and sometimes hallucinates, addressing an unidentified male figure, perhaps a traveller looking for shelter.
We then go back to an earlier moment in Erlendur's quest on the Icelandic moors. He meets a man hunting a sheep-worrying fox who starts him on another investigation of a disappearance. This one took place some sixty years previously when Matthildur, a young wife, went missing from home. Her husband reported her absent, saying that she'd set out for her mother's house across the moors but a terrible storm arose, one which briefly swallowed up a large party of American servicemen from a local army base and killed several of them. Their bodies were recovered, but Matthildur, like Bergur, was never seen again.
Erlendur works from clue to fading clue, interviewing whoever still remains from those days. He runs into some considerable resistance in his investigations. He is not trusted, first as an outsider from the big city, second as a possible scout for the huge hydroelectric project that will transform this corner of the country. It is a development that is welcomed by some, mostly younger, local inhabitants but deeply distrusted by their elders.
At this point it is enough to say that the narrative continues with Erlendur's personal search and his professional one unfolding more or less in tandem. There is a lot of looking back here, obviously, and Arnaldur looks back as well to the earlier novels in the series, most of which are obliquely referred to along the way. What have been persistent themes recur. The ambiguities of modernization and its dubious promise of economic prosperity are embodied in the new aluminum smelter. Like so much else in Iceland at that particular moment in time, the promised wealth will prove illusory; what will remain is the scar on the landscape and the irretrievable change that it will produce. When his family left the countryside for Reykjavik after his brother's disappearance, Erlendur, like his father, never adjusted to the city. His life, we are told, came to standstill and he had "never managed to wind the mechanism up again." He is addicted to traditional Icelandic foods, including the dried fish that needs to be pounded with a hammer for hours before consumption and detests modern importations, except, of course, for the coffee he consumes by the litre.
Whether Erlendur survives his sojourn in the Arctic wilderness is not a question I am going to answer. You will have to read the book to find out. Should you? Absolutely! At the heart of this clever mystery of what happened to Matthildur lies a much deeper and more intriguing puzzle and that is Erlendur himself. What is it that created this morose, unhappy, in some ways failed, individual? Why can he not be easy in the present moment? He is not a religious man - why then is he so crippled by guilt over something that he did not cause? Is being a "witness to the helplessness of the individual when confronted by the pitiless forces of nature" a sufficient justification for existence?
These are perhaps not quite the kinds of questions we expect to find posed in mysteries, but they are the sort that Nordic crime fiction seems quite willing to take on. It is a tribute to the elasticity of the genre that a detective story can accommodate them without being overburdened with existential gloom. STRANGE SHORES is, admittedly, very far from escapist fare, but it is a novel that engages our sympathies and demands our respect for an odd, difficult, dogged, and persistent protagonist, who will get to the bottom of things regardless of cost.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2013
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