Silence of the Grave
by Arnaldur Indridason
Review by Ernest Lilley
St. Martin's Minotaur Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0312340710
Date: 03 October, 2006 List Price $22.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
If reviewers are at all like detectives, in that we're looking to uncover the answer to a riddle posed by the evidence before us. For the detective, it's typically whodunnit, but for us the shoe is on the other foot. What we yearn to learn is who would get something out of a book, and is it worth recommending.
In the case of Arnaldur Indridason's second book, Silence of the Grave, it's a pretty much open and shut case. Any fan of either police procedurals or noir fiction should find the gray, wet weather of Iceland and the equally gray emotional life of Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson (though Iceladers never actually use last names) about as compelling as storytelling gets. We first encountered the dour detective in Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller where he unearthed a murder that had lain buried for too many years, and now he's back disturbing more graves when he stumbles over an outstretched hand of a skeleton at a construction site. As an archaeologist digs with maddening slowness towards the bones below, Erlendur and his team dig into the records and memories of anyone they can find connected to a remote cabin long since gone to dust, and marked only by a strand of red currant bushes that bear good fruit in the spring.
Teasing the truth out of the past is fully as difficult for the inspector as clearing the dirt away with brushes and spoons for the archaeologist called in to help out. Finding witnesses to a crime that might have happened anywhere from forty to sixty years ago in what was then rural land well beyond the limits of Reykjavik and is only now being swallowed up by the building boom of a new century is to follow a tenuous trail at best. After all this time it seems like everyone has something to hide, whether or not it leads to murder or simply inconvenient truths.
One of the elements that makes this story so engaging is that at the outset we know neither who the victim or killer is, or even if a crime has actually occurred. Were it not for Erlendur's obsessive need to rescue the lost we could expect this pile of bones to be swept under a rug somewhere, and indeed, after all this time we wonder if that might not be best. Maybe, but maybe not. Throughout the process of uncovering the facts of the case one by one, truths emerge that allow victims of many different kinds of fear to lay their dead finally on hallowed ground.
There are three significant story lines here, woven together in tight cloth. First, there's the investigation into the origins of some bones discovered at a children's birthday party, where a baby had been teething on a rib. Then we drop back in time to a tale of domestic violence where we can only look on in horror and hope that there will be some justice at the bottom of the grave site, but fear the worst all the while. Then finally, there is Inspector Erlendur's own nightmare, sitting by the side of his drug addicted daughter's hospital bed having found her collapsed in the cold, her unborn infant dead, and herself in a coma and on the edge of death.
Did I mention that this should appeal to fans of noir fiction?
But here's the stunning thing. Totally without being polyannaesque in any way, and amid the most depressing landscape and circumstances that you can imagine, you can't help admiring the strength of the characters, and rooting for them as they grapple with their demons, no matter what they are made of, or whether they even survive them.
While the mystery in this story would be enough to make a fine piece of fiction in itself, Erlendur's grappling with his abandonment of his wife and children, his vigil by his daughter's bed, and the events that shaped his own emotional distance contribute considerably to the depth of the character and make us look forward to the bigger drama that is slowly unfolding book by book.