My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm glad I stuck with this series of Icelandic mysteries by Arnaldur Indriðason, even though I found the first two entries rather disappointing. This third in the series began to live up to my hopes for it with a dynamic plot and some interesting characters that made me want to know more about them. It also featured a look back at the Cold War of the late 1950s and the constant spying that seems to have been a part of daily life in Eastern European countries of that time.
Once again we meet that morose fellow, the thoroughly uncharismatic Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik Police. He's as messed up as ever as he continues to be haunted by the presumed death of his younger brother when they were children. The brother disappeared in a blizzard and was never found. This touchstone event of Erlendur's life has given him an obsession with long-cold missing person cases. In The Draining Lake he has another one.
It begins with a hydrologist checking on a lake. A recent earthquake has opened cracks in the earth's surface and is causing the lake to slowly drain. As the hydrologist checks the current level of the lake, she discovers some human bones. In fact, it is an intact skeleton that had been formerly hidden by the lake's waters. She calls the police, and, even though Erlendur is supposed to be on leave, his boss, knowing of his interest in such cases, contacts him and he is assigned to investigate.
He and his team check out the skeleton which turns out to be tied to an old Soviet radio receiver that had apparently been used to try to spy on an American military base in Iceland. Also, the skeleton had been in the water for decades and is that of a man with a very large hole in its skull. It seems likely that this was a case of murder.
Erlendur's team starts by investigating unsolved missing persons cases from the '50s and slowly Erlendur's attention turns to the possible Soviet or Eastern European connection and the Cold War cloak-and-dagger activities of the period.
The story also unfolds on a second track as Indriðason introduces us to a group of Icelandic students who went to Leipzig, East Germany, to study in the 1950s. They were active socialists and they received funding to attend the university in Leipzig. A central figure of this group was Tomas, a naive and idealistic young man who found himself in above his depth in the police state that was East Germany then. He fell in love with a young Hungarian woman as her country was exploding in resistance against Soviet domination. She was active in resistance in Leipzig and Tomas, completely unknowingly, betrays her to one of the cloak-and-dagger types. She is arrested and never heard from again.
Tomas is expelled and returned to Iceland but he spends the rest of his life trying to find out what happened to the woman he loved and lost.
I found the way that this narrative unfolded intriguing. The two threads, the modern investigation and the backstory of the Icelandic students in Leipzig, intertwined almost seamlessly, a skillful bit of writing.
Also, we get it all in the context of Erlendur's personal life as he continues to struggle with loneliness and his dysfunctional relationships with his two adult children. He still explodes in irrational anger at those children from time to time - after all, he was the adult in the relationship and he was the one who abandoned them - but there are some glimmers of self-awareness, as well. Maybe the relationships are not a lost cause.
There is one bright point in Erlendur's life. He has tentatively - very tentatively - begun a romantic relationship with a woman he met in the last book. Maybe she'll finally be able to break his dour, melancholy shell and let a smile break through. Perhaps we'll find out in the next book in the series, which I now definitely plan to read.
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