BLACK SKIES by Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason is a smashing success from the very first page. The narrative begins with a man (we don't know him) who is busy beating up another man strapped to a chair (we don't know him, either.) The first fellow has cut up a piece of leather and attached a spike to it for later use. We learn that this is a death mask used on farms to slaughter calves. With an introduction like that, how can fans of police procedurals put this book down?
The series’ main detective, Erlendur, is away. Nobody knows where he is, and so the bulk of the work falls to Sigurdur Oli, one of his colleagues. Oli tries to solve cases that are on the books, but also attempts to do favors for friends without involving the force. One of the most important happenings in the plot is centered on a case of blackmail. A friend introduces Oli to the husband of the couple being blackmailed with photos taken when these people played a "swinging" game that has now come back to haunt them.
"With his deft ear for dialogue and his talent for honing his characters for readers to immediately understand who and what they are, Indridason has created an atmosphere that permeates BLACK SKIES from the very first words."
When Oli goes to the blackmailer's flat, he finds the wife dying, and she soon succumbs to her wounds. He is shocked and can't imagine who would kill her if not the two being blackmailed. The killer is still on the scene and swings a bat at Oli before running away. "Her distraught husband, when he turns up, insists he has no knowledge of any blackmailing scheme." Of course, Oli knows he's lying and yet still tries to keep his friend out of this case. Now the favor he tried to do for his friend turns into a murder investigation.
Oli is also being second guessed by a colleague named Finnur, who wants to know exactly what he is up to. This kind of treatment infuriates Oli, and when he tries to explain to Finnur what he is doing, the two get into a fight. Since he is not in the best frame of mind after attending a school reunion, Oli is having second thoughts about being a policeman. Others in his class have made great deals of money or fame, and he feels that he is just plodding along going nowhere. Even his love life has broken down, and he is all alone.
As he investigates the murder, he learns that the dead woman and her husband were into the drug scene. The husband is a guide who takes people on tours of the Icelandic glaciers, and on one of these trips, a banker falls and is killed. Was he pushed? If so, was the trip really a setup to get rid of this guy who wants out of the money schemes with which he's embroiled. His "friends" feel they cannot take a chance on letting him off the hook.
As the narrative comes to a close, Indridason takes readers full circle and back to the hovel where the man was tied to a chair and now is wearing the death mask. "A grounds man for the Reykjavik cemeteries turned up to work in the old graveyard...and unlocked one of the tool sheds. Happening to glance to his left, [he] stopped short and peered across the graveyard: it looked as if a man was sitting against one of the tombstones...without detecting any movement, he started walking towards him...he saw that the man was dead." "He was dressed in rags, covered with a shabby anorak, his knees clasped tightly to his chest." The grounds man had no way of knowing that this was the man being beaten to a pulp in the chair readers learned about in the beginning.
With his deft ear for dialogue and his talent for honing his characters for readers to immediately understand who and what they are, Indridason has created an atmosphere that permeates BLACK SKIES from the very first words. Readers will understand it and find themselves on an Icelandic journey from a new perspective.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on October 4, 2013