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21 september 2010

It's a familiar mystery device: the suicide that might be a murder (that might be a suicide that looks like a murder that looks like a suicide). This device, in fiction, tends toward outrageous puzzles with a philosophical twist. In Arnaldur Indriðason's Hypothermia, the motif is given one twist further. Our hero, the gloomy detective Erlendur, has long been obsessed with literally cold cases, because his family history includes the coldest case of all: his brother's childhood disappearance in a snowstorm that almost killed Erlendur and their father. When a seemingly explicable suicide leads to the long-hidden story of a hypothermic drowning in an Icelandic lake, Erlendur must confront numerous disappearances in numerous pasts, but saliently, his own brother's.

Hypothermia is a meta-series fiction, the kind of novel that can arise when a series is mature enough to support a focus on the detective himself rather than the murder of the month. Though Erlendur is one of the deeper, more obsessed detectives in recent crime fiction, and for several novels now Arnaldur has led his readers further inside the angst of his protagonist. (The Icelandic title of Hypothermia is Hardskafi, the mountain in Iceland where young Bergur's body may still lie.) In the early Todesrosen, we didn't even know that Bergur had gone missing on the moors – and it's possible that Arnaldur himself didn't know it yet. But by this point, we're ready for a whole novel about Erlendur's ghosts, in which his usual sidekicks barely appear.

Ghosts and fake ghosts also appear in Hypothermia. Among its motifs are near-death experience, mediums, and messages from the Beyond. Erlendur's specialty, the long-buried body, has ghostly overtones even when it's completely prosaic, of course. His knack for stumbling on skeletons that reveal concealed narratives is a kind of gathering of messages from the other side. Mortality, in the Erlendur novels, is a disappearance without a trace. Without knowing quite why, Erlendur is determined to bring the stories of the disappeared to light, at least provisionally.

This narrative kind of detection is present in another common device seen in Hypothermia: the mystery that can be solved only in the detective's own mind, because not enough proof exists to bring the criminals to justice. As so often in crime fiction, it's just as satisfying if reader and detective reach a level of knowledge that the fictional public and the fictional court system never attain. Murder mysteries are not always about righting wrongs: sometimes they're about the insistence on achieving knowledge purely for its own sake. No wonder liberal-arts professors love them.

Victoria Cribb takes over translation of Arnaldur's mysteries from the late Bernard Scudder, and she shows a sure hand in rendering his Icelandic into idiomatic British English. New mysteries by Arnaldur appear in Iceland annually, and I hope we can look forward to English translations on just as annual a basis.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Hypothermia. [Harðskafi, 2007.] Translated by Victoria Cribb. 2009. New York: St. Martin's, 2010.

Danish title: Nedkøling
French title: Hypothermie
German title: Kälteschlaf
Italian title: Un caso archiviato