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30 august 2011

Menschensöhne was the first of Arnaldur Indriðason's "Erlendur" detective novels. It was translated into German a bit later than some of its successors, and has not yet appeared in English. One's never quite sure why some books get translated before others; Menschensöhne is very much of a piece with Arnaldur's later Rejkjavík Krimis. One can speculate on factors that may have entered publishers' minds, though. Erlendur, in his debut appearance, is not yet the tortured, depressed cop brooding over his brother's long-ago death. He's not yet associated with his eldritch mentor Marion Briem. And by comparison to some of the gritty inner-city of later series entries, the crime in Menschensöhne is a far-fetched science-fiction felony of James-Bondian dimensions.

Perhaps most significant, though, is that Erlendur simply isn't very central to Menschensöhne (just as he is completely absent from the latest Arnaldur Krimi not to make it into English, Frevelopfer). He investigates two deaths, and we see him, in a memorable scene, enforcing a little vigilante justice of his own. But the protagonist of the novel is really Pálmi, brother of one of the dead men.

Pálmi's brother Daníel has killed himself. There's no doubt that it was suicide. Daníel jumps from a window, as Pálmi watches, in a scene described directly to the reader from Pálmi's point of view. There's no murderer to be caught; but there's a murderous backstory behind the suicide, one that Pálmi won't stop trying to piece together.

As with so many of Arnaldur's mysteries, the crimes in Menschensöhne have taken place long ago. The victims, witnesses, and even some of the perpetrators are long since dead. Arnaldur's Iceland is a place where everything seems to have been skating along for decades on a thin crust of snow. Over and over, his Erlendur learns that the meantime has been just a veneer covering over the most sinister and inhumane crimes.

One of the novel's kidnapping victims explains:

Hier in Island dauernd Leute verschwinden und kein Hahn danach kräht. . . . Wir sind daran gewöhnt, dass Leute sich im Nebel in den Bergen verirren, in einem See ertrinken und nie wieder auftauchen oder über Bord gehen.

[Here in Iceland people keep disappearing, and nobody gives a hoot. We're used to people wandering off into the mist on mountains, drowning in lakes and never bobbing up again, going overboard.] (272)
The speaker himself disappears from view for the novel's decades-long "meantime," hiding in plain sight in Rejkjavík. ("Alle glauben, dass jeder jeden kennt, wie in früheren Zeiten, aber das stimmt überhaupt nicht mehr," he explains [273]: "They all think that everybody knows everybody else, like in the old days, but that's just not the case anymore.") His disappearance foreshadows themes that will become central to Erlendur's character and to the nature of the entire series; but in Menschensöhne they're still mere shadows.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Menschensöhne. [Synir Duftsins, 1997.] Translated by Coletta Bürling. 2005. Bergisch Gladbach: Lübbe, 2008.