Silence of the Grave

by Arnaldur IndriĆ°ason

“He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.”

That’s one of the most compelling first sentences I’ve ever read, and it’s how the second book in the Inspector Erlendur series begins. A perfectly normal children’s birthday party is interrupted by the discovery of a shallow grave and partially exposed skeleton. That sets into motion a painstaking archaeological excavation. While the bones are being unearthed, Erlender and partners Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg follow scant clues to solve a mystery that had been buried since World War II.

This novel is a slow burn. Since it’s clear that the victim has been buried for decades, and it will take weeks for the archaeologists to complete their work, the investigators are in no hurry. The majority of the detective work takes the form of conversations with elders who were alive back then, or their adult children who are reluctant to delve into painful family memories (and secrets) long forgotten.

We also get a good exploration of recent Icelandic history, from the growth of Reykjavik from a fishing village to a city sprawling into the countryside, to the occupation by British and (later) American forces during WWII. There’s also a fascinating rumor about an orgy that supposedly occurred in the Reykjavik Gas Words during the panic about the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1910, when people thought the world would end and threw caution to the wind.

Against the background of this historical research and slow investigation, we also get to know more about Erlendur’s past: his childhood, his failed marriage, and his chaotic relationship with his daughter, Eva Lind. We also get a glimpse into Sigurdur Oli’s love life as he navigates a difficult situation with his girlfriend of four years.

This is a story about relationships, especially marriages, and the many ways they can start, falter, fail, or be damaged irreparably — or maybe, with hard work, redeemed. It’s also about trauma and domestic abuse, and the lasting repercussions of those events for victims.

With this second book, this series has become not just another Icelandic diversion for me (although it is still that), but also a compelling story about a character I have become invested in. I’m excited to continue reading and see what Inspector Erlender is up to next time.