The Draining Lake
by Arnaldur Indridason
translated by Bernard Scudder
Published by Harvill Secker (UK)
400 pages, 2007
Water of Death
Reviewed by Ali Karim
For this reviewer, the appearance of a newly translated novel by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason constitutes a major publishing event, and each fresh work of his that arrives at my door jumps straight to the top of my reading pile. Indridason’s latest release in the UK, The Draining Lake, is no exception.
Like most novels that are included in a series, it helps if you’ve read the preceding works, in Indridason’s case: Jar City (re-titled Tainted Blood  for UK release), Gold Dagger winner Silence of the Grave (2005) and Voices (2006), all of which have been translated so admirably by Bernard Scudder. Those previous tales help put the investigations of Reykjavik Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson into the context of his personal demons and often troubled life. They also illustrate what drives this policeman so tirelessly to ferret out the truth, even when it’s well hidden behind the shadows and fog of the past. All of Indridason’s Detective Erlendur novels so far involve cases rooted somehow in history, their dark secrets hidden in plain sight. The inspector is assisted in his probings by the two-person Reykjavik Police team of U.S-educated criminology expert Sigurdur Óli and policewoman Elínborg (though the latter is torn in these pages between her duties as a cop and her need to promote a new cookbook she’s written, and which is launching nationally). Deeper in the background looms Erlendur’s ex-boss and mentor, retired Detective Marion Briem, who now lives as a spinster, sucking oxygen from a gas cylinder, her lungs ravaged from a lifetime of cigarette smoking.
Their latest outing finds these detectives tackling a politically charged mystery: Following an earthquake, the water level in Lake Kleifarvatin drops precipitously, exposing the partially buried bones of a long-decayed body, weighted down with what appears to be an old Soviet radio transmitter. Who’s skeleton is it, and what are the deceased’s links to the Eastern Bloc? Structurally and thematically, The Draining Lake bears a resemblance to Peter Robinson’s award-winning 1999 novel, In a Dry Season -- at least insofar as it alternates between a back story that relates to the murder, and the present-day investigation. The obvious difference between these works is that Robinson’s back story was set firmly in World War II, while Indridason’s has its feet in the later Cold War. Both novels do, however, share a similar style of conclusion, with the solution to the crime being delivered only late in the game, and far from what the reader might have anticipated.
Like Indridason’s previous books, The Draining Lake is pervaded with sadness. In this instance, the melancholic atmosphere derives from themes of unrequited or lost love -- relating both to a group of idealistic Icelandic students who went to study in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, and the woes clouding Erlendur’s off-duty life. The inspector, we’re told, is caught between the problems of his estranged and alcoholic son, Sindri Snaer, and his equally troubled daughter, Eva Lind. His son moves into Erlendur’s flat, but holds a deep resentment toward his father for deserting him and their family when he was a child. Eva Lind is no less bitter, though for different reasons -- she must cope with her drug habit (which caused her to miscarry a child), and is quite distrustful of Erlendur’s evolving affection for a married, middle-aged forensic officer named Valgerdur. References to other loved ones who have vanished crop up periodically throughout this yarn, as in the reminder that Erlendur lost his brother in childhood, the boy snatched from him by an avalanche and the body never recovered.
It doesn’t take long for Erlendur & Company to realize that the key to their case lies in a missing automobile, a black Ford Falcon that was owned by a man who vanished mysteriously many years ago. When the detectives interrogate the car owner’s partner, you can feel the hollow sadness she’s endured in the years since. Their interchange serves as a microcosm of the entire novel:
There’s still more tragedy here, as the focus shifts to those Icelandic students who traveled to East Germany when the Cold War was at its zenith. The oldest of that bunch is the aloof Hannes, who eventually concludes that the socialistic political ideals that persuaded him to study in the communist Eastern Bloc may be no better than those espoused by right-wing ideologues. He also suspects that every move made by him and his four fellow Icelanders -- Karl, Emil, Tomas and Lothar -- is being observed, and that their lives are in danger. Meanwhile, into their midst comes a young Hungarian student named Ilona, who, like Hannes, is starting to think that communism is not really the panacea she had imagined it to be. As Tomas slowly falls in love with Ilona, cracks begin to appear in the relationships between all these students. Those fractures become especially evident after Ilona is taken away by the Leipzig secret police. Perhaps one of the Icelandic students disliked Ilona’s outspoken criticism of the Communist regime? In the weeks that follow, a tormented Tomas spends every waking hour trying to locate his beloved Ilona, only to find that there are dangerous men encircling him -- not merely among the East German police, but perhaps among his Icelandic friends as well.
As the reader expects, Indridason loops this historical story line right back to the present, with Erlendur and his team connecting what happened so long ago with the bones discovered in the mud of Lake Kleifarvatin. The lesson here seems to be that blind faith in any political system, coupled with the naïveté of youth, can get you killed, if circumstances provoke it.
Realistically told, emotionally charged, and brimming with compassion, The Draining Lake is likely to challenge the reader’s values system. For this reviewer, at least, Indridason’s latest English-translated novel is one of the highlights of 2007. Although it’s full of pathos, the book also makes clear just how strong the human spirit is, and reminds us that the flip-side of friendship is far from pleasant. It can sometimes be hard to distinguish comrade from foe -- a person can be both at the same time.
Like the woman who waited for her lover to pick her up in that black Ford Falcon, I wait patiently for the next Arnaldur Indridason/Bernard Scudder collaboration to arrive in bookstores. This is crime fiction at its most insightful, poetic and poignant. | October 2007
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine contributor, he's also the assistant editor of Shots, and writes for both Deadly Pleasures and Crime Spree magazines. Karim is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers' Association and the International Thriller Writers. He's currently working on Black Operations, a violent science-fiction-tinged thriller.