Having complained at length about authors who persist in producing the same book over and over again I applaud Arnaldur Indriðason’s willingness to experiment by allowing different protagonists to drive his novels. The fact that he has pulled it off very successfully, for the second time in a row, is a triumph.
BLACK SKIES is the eighth novel in the Reykjavik series of police procedurals but the second one in succession in which the series’ main character, detective Erlunder, is absent from his workplace (for reasons none of his co-workers seem sure of) and the novel. The story takes place in 2005 during the height of Iceland’s economic boom and at the same time as events described in the previous novel OUTRAGE, but here the investigative duties fall to another of Erlunder’s colleagues Sigurdur Óli. It opens with Sigurdur Óli attending a reunion of his high school class at which he feels himself to be the least successful of his classmates, many of whom are making it big in the new economy. However one of those people soon calls on him for a favour. Would Sigurdur Óli mind putting a bit of unofficial pressure on a couple who are blackmailing the man’s sister-in-law and her husband who took part in a wife-swapping escapade? When Sigurdur Óli goes to the blackmailing couple’s house on this errand he finds the woman on the floor with her head bashed in. He attempts to chase the assailant who was still on the scene but soon loses him. For understandable but not terribly clever reasons Sigurdur Óli doesn’t immediately come clean with his colleagues regarding the personal reason for his visit to the woman’s house and so assists with the official investigation while continuing to carry on his own inquiries due to the knowledge that only he possesses.
It is only now that I’ve sat down to write a review containing an even vaguely intelligent synopsis that I’ve realised just how complex and intricate the plot of BLACK SKIES is. Indriðason really is a master at telling stories with lots of layers that don’t make the reader feel like they’re reading a creative writing thesis rather than a novel. It’s bloody great art. Just as you think the book is going to focus on the sexual shenanigans of bored suburbanites it twists to offer the possibility of a drug deal gone bad. And then another turn….what are the wretched bankers up to and how might it relate to the death of a tour guide? Indriðason ties this all together beautifully and manages to encircle the investigative narrative with another thread that follows the story of a derelict called Anders who keeps crossing Sigurdur Óli’s path. His story, slowly revealed over the course of the novel, is a heartbreaking one and despite his self-confessed and innate sense of superiority over people like Anders the case becomes something of a watershed for Sigurdur Óli,
Another element that elevates BLACK SKIES above the norm for me is the character of Sigurdur Óli. He bares few of the traits of the great and memorable fictional cops. He’s not a genius, he’s not a workaholic, he’s not tortured by the souls of the deaths he has investigated. He’s a pretty ordinary guy doing a job he fell into and some days he’d rather be doing something else. But even without the trappings of the genre’s stalwarts he is still a wonderfully drawn character who we do see struggle with some aspects of his life, working out how his marriage failed for example, while trying to do a good job even when he doesn’t like his work and maintaining his moral core in the face of pressure. He is, I suspect, a lot closer to real cops than many of his more famous fictional brethren.
There’s much more I could talk about, including the novel’s unpacking of Iceland’s part in the global economic meltdown which is fascinating, but I think it’s time to simply recommend the book without qualification. It’s one of those crime novels I think could be read and enjoyed by non crime fans too and I don’t think you need to have read the earlier novels in the series in order to read this one. I’ve never been so frustrated by my own monolingual status as I am at knowing this book’s sequel is available but only if I can learn to read Icelandic.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Victoria Cribb
Publisher Harvill Secker 
Length 330 pages
Book Series #8 in the Reykjavik series
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