The Darkness Knows
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
Konrád, a retired police detective in Reykjavík, Iceland has been brooding about a case for 30 years. Three decades ago an entrepreneur named Sigurvin disappeared, and Detective Konrád was an investigator on the case.
The prime suspect was Sigurvin’s former business partner Hjaltalín, who was heard to argue with Sigurvin and threaten his life. Hjaltalín was detained, but he loudly proclaimed his innocence, and – with no corpse – there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. So Hjaltalín walked free, but his life was blighted by a cloud of suspicion.
Now, 30 years later, Sigurvin’s body has been found by tourists hiking on the Langjökull glacier. The medical examiner determines Sigurvin was killed by blows to the head, the murder case is reopened, and Hjaltalín – now suffering from end-stage throat cancer – is arrested once again. Hjaltalín insists on speaking to retired Detective Konrád, who agrees, thinking Hjaltalín wants to confess and clear his conscience.
Konrád visits Hjaltalín in jail, where the sick man is weak, frail, and confined to his bed. Instead of confessing, Hjaltalín insists he’s innocent, and asks Konrád to find the real killer and make him pay.
Since Konrád is retired he has no authority to investigate Sigurvin’s death, but the case still haunts him. Moreover, the discovery of Sigurvin’s body triggers people’s memories, and a woman named Herdis comes to Konrád with a story about her brother Villi. The tale goes as follows: When Villi was a child, he liked to play around the abandoned water tanks on Öskjuhlíd Hill, in central Reykjavík. One night, nine-year-old Villi encountered a stranger on Öskjuhlíd, who chased Villi off and threatened to kill him if he spoke about the encounter. Soon afterwards Sigurvin vanished after being seen arguing with a man on Öskjuhlíd. Villi didn’t realize he may have seen the killer until many years later, when he watched a true crime documentary about Sigurvin’s disappearance.
Afterwards, in 2009, Villi was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Now that Sigurvin’s body has been found, Herdis speculates that Villi’s death may be connected to Sigurvin’s murder, and she asks Konrád to look into it. This gives the retired detective a good excuse to poke around in the Sigurvin case, which he does with the help of friends and contacts in the police department.
This is a cold case police procedural that feels very authentic, with Konrád diligently following clues that lead from place to place and person to person – clues that sometimes provide useful information and sometimes fizzle out.
The book is also a character study of Konrád, who has a thorny past. Konrád was born with a withered arm, to a brutal father who abused his mother. When Konrád’s mother had enough and fled with his sister, Konrád’s father insisted the boy stay with him. The dad – who was a smuggler, thief, and fraud – made Konrád participate in his illegal activities, and Konrád became a juvenile delinguent who committed crimes, skipped school, and drank. Then Konrád’s father was stabbed to death and his murder was never solved.
The homicide spurred Konrad to clean up his act, get an education, and join the police force. Konrád married, had a son, became a grandfather, and was doing well until his wife got terminal cancer and Konrad retired to take care of her. Konrád’s story is filled with events from his life, like the time he was bullied at school; his rare visits with his mother; how he met his beloved wife; and more.
The atmosphere and landscape of Iceland make a fine backdrop to this compelling Nordic noir, which is expected to be the debut of a new series from award-winning author Arnaldur Indridason.