VOICES by Arnaldur Indridason is set in a crowded hotel, one of
the largest in Reukjavik, Iceland, during the Christmas season.
Gudlaugef is the hotel’s doorman, the most recognized
employee, but nobody “knew” him or anything about him.
A congenial fellow while wearing his uniform, he is a very private
man who lives in a closet-sized room in the basement of the posh
hotel. He feels safe there and works hard at keeping everything
about his life a secret. Ironically, while his job forces him to
work with people, he is invisible and of little importance to his
co-workers, which suits him just fine. So why is he mysteriously
murdered in his Santa suit before he is about to entertain children
as he has done every year?
When the police are called, they gather to try to coordinate a
strategy. At the head of the team of detectives is Erlander, a
divorced, tortured man whose daughter is a drug addict and whose
son is estranged from the family. With him on the scene is his
loyal team: Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg. Their mission is to
investigate Santa’s strange and brutal murder, especially
since he was found in a compromising position.
The hotel manager is a huge man who is outraged at having to cancel
the establishment’s traditional children’s party. He
feels that Gudlaugef’s murder is an inconvenience and worries
only about the reputation of the hotel. His crudeness and
insensitivity rankles the investigative team, especially when they
learn that he is not being completely honest with them. Why? What
is he covering up?
As the investigation slowly takes shape, the detectives unearth the
fact that as a boy, the victim and his younger brother had been
caught in a ravaging snowstorm. The boys tried to hold on to each
other, but the conditions beat down so hard they were separated.
Gudlaugef was the son who returned home alone. His father
didn’t forgive him until, as a choirboy, he was found to have
a “golden voice.” His father took over his life and
spent all of his time and energy grooming him to be a child star.
Gudlaugef released two records, which had done very well in Iceland
and beyond its borders. Now they were collector’s items and
worth a great deal of money.
Gudlaugef had been scheduled for a singing tour and was very
confident as he took the stage. Then, as he opened his mouth, his
voice betrayed him; he no longer was able to produce the velvety
sound that moved people to tears. Unfortunately, he was at the age
when his voice began to change, and that night nature made its
entrance --- he could no longer sing. He knew his father had more
reason to hate him. Just about this time, his mother died, and in
his grief his sister saw him dress up in his mother’s
dresses, jewelry and even her makeup. By accident his father caught
him with a boy and considered him an abomination. The two fought at
the top of the stairs, and Gudlaugef pushed the older man down the
steps. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Gudlaugef cuts himself off from the world. But as the years pass,
his loneliness becomes intolerable. He still has the key to his
former home and would sneak into the living room in the middle of
the night just to sit there all alone. He went undetected for
years. VOICES moves through the twists and turns of its
page-turning plot, and readers soon recognize the depths that
Indridason mines to tell the story. Far beyond the mystery on the
surface, he has a deep understanding of what happens to people who
lose everything, including themselves. For example, in an interview
he said, “I want to really understand Erlendur. How can
Erlendur deal with other people's family tragedies --- in every
sense but can't help himself? What makes him who he is?"
These questions and others resonate in VOICES, a complicated
amalgam of Icelandic culture that adds a bit of universal codes in
the other countries where his books are read. In the same
discussion he said, "I write from an Icelandic perspective. I don't
write for anyone else. So I was a little surprised that coming from
Iceland seems to have added to the appeal for readers from abroad.
It is a tremendous thrill that this tiny language can be spread."
Anyone with a taste for crime stories in the spirit of Karen
Fossum, Val McDermid or Peter Hoeg will be riveted by VOICES. Like
them, he raises what used to be seen as “only” a
subgenre to a literary form.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 24, 2011