Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bad Things Happen: Arnaldur Indridason’s Black Skies

Nothing comes without consequences - Charles Ferguson's 2010 Inside Job.

In a 2008 interview with the CBC’s Michael Enright, the Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell, commented that the vast majority of lawbreakers are not evil but that they get caught up in evil circumstances. I thought about Mankell’s musing while reading the Icelandic novelist, Arnaldur Indridason’s most recent police procedural (published in English) Black Skies (Harvill Secker, 2012) since greed, fear of public disgrace and revenge for a terrible injustice committed years earlier provide the motivation for the murders committed. In Arnaldur’s (in Iceland everyone is known by his first name) oeuvre, he is primarily concerned about domestic and social issues, and how the harsh Icelandic climate can affect people. Bad things happen when people make ill-considered decisions. He does feature psychopaths but they are frequently murdered, sometimes decades later, as a result of their incessant abuse of others.

From Jar City (2004) to Hypothermia (2009), Arnaldur’s brooding but resourceful loner, Erlander, is the senior member of the police investigation team. Burdened with guilt because of an incident in which he lost contact with his younger brother in a storm, compounded by having abandoned his wife and two young children years later, he tries in Silence of the Grave to explain to his almost comatose drug-addled daughter who has tracked him down after over twenty years that “he had been battling against that blizzard for all his life and all the passage of time did was to intensify it.” Yet in his professional life, Erlander draws upon that pain to crack open cases that were perpetrated years earlier in Silence and The Draining Lake or relive his personal tragedy in Voices so that he can salvage his daughter’s life in the present. He is assisted by the capable Elinborg, who successfully juggles her career with managing a family, and by Sigurdur Oli, a graduate of criminology from an American university, even though he is hampered by a stiff-necked personality with rigid attitudes. When Outrage begins with the murder of a young man with a rape drug in his possession, Erlander is on leave to wrestle with personal demons and the case is assigned to Elinborg, who is particularly astute in investigating cases of sexual abuse. At the same time that she is working on that investigation, Sigurdur Oli is at the centre of two cases that are the focus in Black Skies.

Although written in 2009 after the September 2008 financial collapse tripled unemployment, Arnaldur sets Black Skies in the heady days before that cataclysm that allow him to explore the murky world of the financial elites who live beyond their means on credit, convinced that in the ever-expanding economy, they will amass a huge fortune, a goal they will pursue at any cost. Yet for the first two hundred pages, the novel appears to be about two unrelated cases: a squalid blackmail attempt in a “wife-swapping” circle which leads to murder and the efforts of an addicted derelict who appears regularly at the police station wanting to tell his story to Erlander, whom he had contact in the earlier Arctic Chill, but then settles for Sigurdur Oli. Anders tragic life has been almost destroyed by a stepfather who films the sexually abuse of him. Drugs and alcohol, punctuated by a life of petty crime, was his attempt to anesthetize the pain. Usually, Sigurdur Oli has little sympathy for his type, believing that people are responsible for their own lives, but, perhaps given his own plight, he comes to realize that his marriage is in ruins largely because of his rigidity and inflexibility. As he begins to change, he is drawn to Anders and attempts to understand what this troubled man is trying to say to him.

Arnaldur Indridason

While inquiring into the life of this down-and-outer, Sigurdur Oli pursues the murder case that is more layered than he initially thought. He is able to make connections between the murdered woman and a banker who went missing on a corporate trip to the highlands, and that the arrest of a thug is related to a friend’s wife who has political aspirations. Sigurdur Oli has now the probable grounds to scrutinize the dubious business affairs of the “New Vikings” who have taken advantage of the privatized banks and deregulation to loan and borrow huge sums of virtual money. Sigurdur is offended by the bankers’ conspicuous opulence and their arrogance, who bristle at the suggestion that they have any connection to the murdered woman or were in any way responsible for the “accidental” death of a colleague. His dogged sleuthing ultimately cracks the polished veneer of the bankers who financed their grandiose schemes with funds from a morally reprehensible source, a decision which spirals into a criminal act. Arnaldur to his credit is able to link the two plots and his sympathies, and that of his protagonist, are clearly with society’s detritus over the privileged bankers.

Black Skies has a timely current resonance with the news emerging from Iceland that since 2009 a special prosecutor has been pursuing criminal investigations of bankers whose actions contributed to the global recession. Unlike the U.S. and much of Europe, they have faced societal stigma and legal sanction. Although there have been only a handful of convictions, the new government has restructured the banks, forced them to write off a large chunk of the loans to homeowners with hefty mortgages and did not bail out foreign bondholders. According to the former head of trading for a once high-flying bank, public hostility toward bankers is so strong that “it is easier to say you are dealing drugs than to say you are a banker.” It is a delicious irony that Arnaldur would appreciate.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. 11 The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, will be launched on Thursday March 7 between 6 PM and 8 PM at Ben McNally Books 366 Bay St. (Richmond and Bay) in Toronto.

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