The Draining Lake

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The Draining Lake is many different books in one: a murder mystery, a crime novel, an espionage novel, a missing-persons novel, a psychological novel about loneliness, a mythic novel, and a character study of its central figure, Erlendur Sveinsson. Arnaldur Indriðason skillfully interweaves these elements into a complex and fascinating novel. Events and characters on one story path lead the reader into another and then back to the central story, which is the murder mystery. Arnaldur (the first name is used according to Icelandic custom) succeeds in juxtaposing the intrigue of the various story threads in such a way that they remain separate and could stand alone as a self-sustaining story.

The structure of the novel is given texture by the use of repeated images and situations in the various stories. Tomás, the Leipzig student, observes a couple who walk hand in hand every evening; at the end of the novel, Sunna and her new companion walk off hand in hand. Tomás lives in the memories of Ilona; Leopold’s girlfriend lives in the memories of her life with him; and Erlendur’s thoughts constantly return to his brother, who has died tragically.

The setting of the novel is Iceland, but it plays a greater role than merely providing a location. The country and its traditions, its myths, its mysteries, and its physical attributes of climate, terrain, and weather set the tone of the work. The climate is harsh, with its cold, its damp, and its long dark season. Similarly, life is harsh, with its obstacles, its disappointments, its dangers, and its failures. Iceland is reflected in Erlendur’s life and in his cold temperament. He is estranged from his children and rarely socializes. He lives alone in an apartment with only the bare essentials, except for one luxury: a large collection of books that provides him an escape from the dreariness of reality.

Traditionally, Iceland’s people had a close connection to the land, but many who lived in the country have moved to the cities to earn a living, and their lives are colored by a sense of displacement. The majority of Arnaldur’s characters suffer from a sense of not belonging and are ill at ease in their lives. Life in Iceland is precarious because of its natural phenomena; Erlendur is haunted by the loss of his younger brother in an avalanche. Iceland’s cold, snow, and darkness provide an atmosphere of immobility and sameness. Arnaldur exploits this concept to create irony and tension in his novel. Nothing ever happens in Iceland, an opinion constantly repeated by the foreign envoys encountered by Erlendur and his colleagues, and yet people disappear, lakes mysteriously drain, and the dead bodies of murder victims appear.

The novel begins with Sunna, a hydrologist, discovering a skeleton in the mud of Lake Kleifarvatn, which has been mysteriously draining since a recent earthquake. The Reykjavik police are called in to conduct an investigation, and the team of detectives working on the case includes Erlendur, who is obsessed with missing-persons cases; Elinborg, a female detective who has written a cookbook; and Sigurdur Óli, a no-nonsense detective. The skull shows evidence of a severe blow to the head and is attached to a radio transmitter bearing Russian words. There are, however, no clues to the identity of the murder victim. Once it is determined that the skeleton is the remains of a body put into the lake sometime around 1970, the detectives begin reopening unsolved cases of persons reported missing about that time.

One of these cases is a man who left a black Ford Falcon at the train station and the woman he was to marry outside the dairy shop where she worked. Erlendur is particularly drawn to this case, and he discovers that the abandoned woman is still waiting for her missing lover. In pursuing the renewed investigation, Erlendur finds that there was no record of the man’s identity at the time of his disappearance. From his interviews with the woman, Erlendur does, however, find out that the man, known as Leopold, sold farm machinery made in East Germany and that on the day of his disappearance he had an appointment to meet a prospective client, Haraldur, at his farm.

Further investigation results in Erlendur locating the black Ford Falcon, with its missing hubcap. As a result of Erlendur’s tenacity, Haraldur eventually tells him that...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 22 (August 1, 2008): 42.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 15 (August 1, 2008): 23.

Library Journal 133, no. 14 (September 1, 2008): 103.

New Statesman 136 (July 30, 2007): 60.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 29 (July 21, 2008): 140-141.

The Wall Street Journal 252, no. 105 (November 1, 2008): W13.