[Please note: The following post about the mystery novel The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason is free of spoilers.]
I’ve always read mysteries but I confess that lately I am a very impatient reader of crime fiction. After over thirty years of reading mysteries, and watching crime films, and countless episodes of mystery TV programs, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve seen it ALL BEFORE. Most of the conventions of the genre start to look like grotesque, intolerable poses. As I get older, I find myself completely dissatisfied with the standardized formulas of detective story-telling, or should we just more accurately call them templates? I also find myself becoming stodgy about things that I used to find exciting and thrilling, such as serial killers and outrageously original ways of killing and mutilating bodies. Nowadays, when I read mysteries, I am looking for outstanding characterization, voice and something else, factor X, that I can never predict or know beforehand but when I see it I recognize it as something special. What interests me the least is who is the killer.
Before reading The Draining Lake by the Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indridason, I had read Jar City and The Silence of the Grave. The first struck me as very clever, tightly plotted and refreshingly humanistic in its approach to the genre. The Silence of the Grave blew my socks off for its poignant depiction of domestic violence, its lessons about Icelandic history and the sympathetic presence of Inspector Erlendur and his team. At that point I decided that Indridason was a cut above the usual, sensationalist crime writers I’ve been reading. The Draining Lake, however, is my favorite of the three. It’s the story of a murder investigation but more importantly it is an exploration of loss. Indridason populates his story with multiple characters who are searching for lost loved ones. He weaves all of these stories of loss together and creates echoes and resonance, culminating in a beautiful and very moving ending. A mystery is solved, in a superficial sense of the word, but the existential mystery of loss remains, and all characters must endlessly and eternally search it. Even when loss is irrevocable, unchangeable, it demands that we endlessly return to it, to somehow try to understand its meaning and permanence.
At one point, Inspector Erlendur visits his former Chief, who is dying of cancer and who is a fan of Hollywood Westerns. The two men watch John Ford’s famous film The Searchers, about Wayne’s hunt to restore a little white girl to her family after she is kidnapped by the Comanche. It’s a revealing microcosm of what we might call the novel’s geography of loss and memory. Indridason layers in these and other symbolic references and emotional side notes that reinforce the themes of loss and searching. It’s a great literary orchestration, unusual in a crime novel. It’s not pretentious or obtrusive. It fits, it is economical, it greases the gears of the plot.
All of this might make it seem like The Draining Lake is a novel about philosophy, or intellectual entertainment. It’s not, really. It’s an excellent murder mystery that features fascinating history about the Cold War in Europe. It also features appealing characters that are human, relatable and even sometimes admirable. Inspector Erlendur has an outstanding backstory, which explains his obsession with missing person cases and his existential melancholy. He’s a man we cheer for when a little bit of happiness turns up at his door at the end of the novel.
I can’t wait to read more of Arnaldur Indridason. I can’t wait to find other novelists who take crime fiction to such unexpected, rich places.