A lake in Iceland is draining mysteriously and a lady who has walked inside the lake discovers a skeleton which is tied to a listening device. Police arrive at the scene and note that the listening device is ‘Made in Russia’ and was probably used for spying purposes. Going by the details of the listening device, they conclude that the skeleton has been in the lake since 1970s. The investigation, headed by Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, starts looking for people who have been reported missing in 1970s. While the police team is not very enthused by this case and wants to abandon it, Erlendur refuses to do so and proceeds with the investigation. With the possible murder having taken place decades ago and with almost no clue in hand, how Erlendur step by steps solves this case is one the threads of this mystery novel.
The other more interesting thread is the one which reconstructs the past, explaining the rationale behind the murder. This thread is more gripping than the investigative thread. It is about a young, idealistic Icelandic student, drawn in by the tenets of Communism, decides to pursue his higher studies in Leipzig, East Germany, during the Cold War years. He arrives in Leipzig with the enthusiasm of an indoctrinated cult member, ready to change the world through his ideals, only to discover that the idealistic communist state he dreamt of is just a dream. He starts to understand the fascist tendencies of East Germany: the constant surveillance, the need to regularly prove one’s loyalty to the state and its ideals, the fear of betrayal and the state’s intolerance towards any criticism. It is an environment where no one, including best of friends, can be trusted. The big brother constantly watches you, not just through his agents alone, but also through your friends, neighbors and teachers.
In this environment, he falls in love with a young girl, who has anti-establishment tendencies. She is not ready to accept the state of affairs as they are and becomes a part of a subversive group, which meets in total secrecy. The young man also starts attending these meetings but soon things turn fatal. One day the girl disappears. All he gets to know from the neighbors is that the police took her away. No amount of banging on the bureaucratic walls yields anything and finally he is sent back to Iceland. He knows that someone in his group has betrayed him and his girlfriend. What happens later forms the rest of this thread. The loss of faith in one ideals, the loss of innocence, the need to doubt everyone, the transformative power of love, the daredevilry that accompanies it and the inability to shake off an unresolved past are all woven together into a gripping tale by Indridasson.
Arnaldur Indridason’s writing style is very similar to the style of Wahloo and Sjowall. It is a low key style and the the investigation proceeds is in classic police procedural way Wahloo and Sjowall: the piecing together small clues, lot of leg work and a bit of luck. In this novel as well as in other novels like ‘Voices’ and ‘Silence of the Graves’, Indridason draws up a flashback, which as interesting, if not more, as the main investigation thread. His vision is bleak, the back story is tragic and yet he is able them uplifting. In this book too, what starts a murder investigation actually turns out to be a recital of a great love story. The scar that a lost love can leave on a person is what gives depth to this novel. The sense of melancholy which is present throughout the book makes it different from the standard detective novels.
Indridason takes lot of effort to draw the portrait of Inspector Erlendur. He is separated from his wife, who cannot stand him and refuses to see or talk to him. His daughter is a drug addict and his son is a drifter. This family thread is developed consciously through all his books. While this does give a good background of the Inspector, sometimes this also slows down the progress of the novel a bit. The other story of Erlendur, which occurs in his childhood, is more poignant and that is what propels Erlendur to try and solve missing person cases. The team members of Erlendur are also given their own stories but they lack the required depth to make them stick in our memory.
The other Indridasson novels I would recommend include: ‘Silence of the Grave’, a tragic but an uplifting tale of a battered housewife, ‘Hypothermia’, which involves mediums and missing persons, ‘Voices’, a melancholic tale of a person who raises to fame at a very young age only to see that vanish abruptly. All novels are equally good with ‘Draining Lake’ being a good introduction to Indridason’s style of writing. With many successful books behind him, Indridason keeps the flag of Scandinavian police procedurals flying high.