This is another mystery by the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indrithason (alternatively spelled Indridason). I now know that his last name (or more correctly, his patronymic) is more correctly spelled Indriðason, since one thing I learned while I was in Iceland was the sounds that those extra letters make: Ð and ð are the upper and lower case versions of the letter eth, which makes a voiced th sound, as in “the.” Þ and þ are the upper and lower case versions of the letter thorn, which makes an unvoiced th sound, as in “think.” I also learned how to pronounce the variety of accented vowels they use, such as á (ow) and í (ee).
While my family is a long way from pronouncing (let alone understanding) much in Icelandic, we did make some progress. It turns out, if you stare hard enough at some of the words, you can figure out what they mean because they are related to a similar English word (more correctly, Old English, which also used the eth and the thorn letters). I wasn’t expecting this. I was expecting to rely on my (extremely rusty) college German to decipher things; while that sometimes worked (Hallgrímskjirke is the church of Hallgrimur) it was also useful to try to think what English word the Icelandic word might look like. Thus we were able to decipher the names of my son’s favorite Icelandic food, þykkmjólk, and his least favorite, saltfiskur. Þykkmjólk (say it out loud: thickmilk) is a kind of creamy yogurt, and saltfiskur, as you can guess, is salted fish.
The English translation of Silence of the Grave abandoned the eth and the thorn, but did retain the accented letters. Thus I was better able to hear (in my head) the names of the characters and locations. I also had a much better sense of the geography and the landscape. The story centers around discovering the identity of an old skeleton found at a construction site, and much is made of the rapid growth of Reykjavik. This is indeed a topic of discussion in Iceland today, as the young people from the isolated fishing villages are all moving to Reykjavik where they can get better jobs and have a higher standard of living. Reykjavik is surrounded by suburban sprawl that rivals that of many U.S. cities. Roads are wide, houses are spacious, and SUVs abound. Ignore the signs with the odd letters and you could be in Middleton, Wisconsin (albeit minus the trees; Iceland is virtually treeless).
Detective Erlendur is still depressed in this book, as he was in Jar City. In fact, the situation with his drug-addicted daughter is even worse. But more depressing than that is the story of who the bones belong to and how they got there. Erlendur uncovers a very disturbing tale of domestic violence, and really, I could have done without it. There are no bright spots in this book. Nevertheless, Arnaldur’s steady reliable prose combined with a setting like no other in detective fiction makes this book very readable.
How is the photo show of Iceland coming, you may ask. All the photos from all three digital cameras have now been uploaded to one computer. What remains is a giant sort and then an upload to Flickr. Don’t hold your breath.
(Book 41, 2007)