The last book by Arnaldur Indridason, Outrage, saw the usual protagonist of the series, detective Erlunder disappear for an extended leave of absence and the investigation taken up by his female colleague, Elinborg. I enjoyed the book but missed the character of Erlunder so was slightly apprehensive when I noticed he had not yet returned for Black Skies. This time, the central police figure is Sigurdur Óli, known in previous books mainly for his attempts to become a parent with his partner Bergthóra.
Although written in 2009, the book is set in 2005, at the height of Icelandic economic boom. Sigurdur Óli attends a high school reunion and notes with dismay that most of his contemporaries have become rich from the country’s economic success. However the friend of one his classmates is being blackmailed after he and his wife were photographed at a swingers party. Sigurdur Óli agrees to pay a visit to the blackmailer but before he can speak to her, he surprises an attack on the woman by an unknown assailant. Sigurdur is now in a difficult situation as he tries to remain involved in the police investigation without revealing the reasons for his presence at the murder scene.
Meanwhile an elderly man has been taken prisoner and had placed over his head a leather mask fixed with a spike, similar to those used by Icelandic farmers to kill their animals. It is clear that a disturbed individual is extracting revenge for past misdemeanours.
Such is Indridason’s skill as a writer that the elevation of Sigurdur Óli as a central character worked very well. Instead of once more focusing on the the fertility problems experienced by him and Bergthóra, we see instead the toll that it has taken on their relationship and the separate paths they are now following. The emphasis on the personal seemed to chime in with the plot. Sigurdur is pressurised by a personal acquaintance to investigate a blackmail plot, and when things start to disintegrate this friend unfairly blames Sigurdur for coming to the attention of the police.
Although the blackmail plot is related to husband and wife swapping parties thankfully this isn’t at the centre of the book. Instead the focus is on the greed of bankers and those in associated professions at the height of the economic boom. As the author makes clear it is not only the selfishness of the bankers that is to blame for the spiralling debt situation but the archaic Icelandic laws which fail to provide a legal structure to address financial abuse.
The book was, as usual, an engrossing read and although the relevance of the man with the mask wasn’t initially clear, the links are eventually made. The book is full of incidental detail including reference to the absent Erlundur, Sigurdur’s relationship with his divorced parents and the despair of the police at the justice system which fails to keep repeat offenders off the streets. As readers of Indridason will know, these are themes that crop up again and again in his writing.