The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

January 12, 2014

BLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason

Inspector Erlandur, the main character in Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic police series, has taken some time off. While he's away, one of his team, Sigurdur Óli, never the most dedicated of crimefighters, takes the spotlight.

Sigurdur Óli has a friend who shocks the detective by revealing his wife-swapping behavior, then asks Sigurdur Óli to talk to a husband-and-wife amateur team of blackmailers and get them to knock it off. But when Sigurdur Óli goes to talk to them, he finds the woman has been beaten nearly to death and her home trashed. And Sigurdur Óli nearly gets his own head bashed in before the assailant takes to his heels. In the ensuing investigation, Sigurdur Óli does not quite reveal all the facts - trying to protect his friend, of course - to his colleagues and refuses to recuse himself from the case. The reader can safely trust that his failure to do so will come back to bite him in the derrière

While trying to track down the assailant, a homeless man, Andres, makes Sigurdur Óli the object of some mysterious declarations and sends the policeman a soundless 12-second filmstrip that shows a naked and terrified young boy. Sigurdur Óli can never pin down the constantly-in-motion Andres long enough to get direct answers, but then, even if he could, Andres's mental condition and habitually drunken state are not likely to improve his coherence. While Sigurdur Óli wrestles with these puzzles, he must also grapple with mounting personal issues including the break up of his long-term relationship and the revelation that his father has prostate cancer.

Throughout this series, Sigurdur Óli has never been a sympathetic character, and the same is true in this book. He is cold, cynical, callous, and profoundly snobbish. By book's end, the reader still may not like this character, but there will be dawning respect as his personal crises do cause Sigurdur Óli to spend some time in self-examination, and to find himself wanting -- and wanting to be better. In past books Sigurdur Óli has not been a hardworking detective, and his self-absorption and superior attitude have made him insensitive to nuances in witness statements. In BLACK SKIES, his sudden solitude makes him more willing to put in the hours: long, dull, thankless hours of legwork. His introspection awakens in him a new awareness that the people around him are people, not stereotypes. And his contact with the pitiful, broken Andres helps him toward a better understanding of why Sigurdur Óli is the way he is.

As bleak as this book is - and its title does it justice - as long as a character like Sigurdur Óli can begin finding greater humanity in himself, there is hope for us all.

RECOMMENDED but with the added caution that this book is at times so bleak that reading it in one sitting is not advised. Walk away a time or two, and maintain perspective.

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