It is nearly Christmas in Iceland, holiday visitors gathering for celebration at the Hotel Reykjavik. Santa is late, an excited group of guestís children awaiting his arrival; a young woman sent to fetch the recalcitrant Santa finds him brutally murdered, stabbed through the heart and in a compromising position. Crime is no respecter of holidays. Called to investigate, Detective Inspector Erlendur arrives with his assistants, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, both of whom have put holiday plans on hold to attend to their police duties.
Examining the spartan basement room of Gudlauger, the doorman-cum-annual Santa, Erlendur is stunned by the few material possessions and restricted circumstances of an employee many recognize but few have troubled to befriend. Later, Erlendur will discover that this solitary man was once the focus of national attention, enjoying a stunning, short-lived career as a child singer with an extraordinary voice.
The holiday season is painful for Erlendur as he considers the paucity of his own relationships. Long divorced, his closest connection is to his troubled daughter, an addict recently recovering from a traumatic loss and clinging desperately to sobriety.
Impulsively taking a room at the hotel for the duration of the investigation, Erlendur worries about his daughter. She is dangerously close to falling victim once more to her disease, flirting with the drugs that allow temporary respite but only yield more problems afterwards.
Sorting through the eccentric characters unearthed by the investigation, the focus of Erlendurís interest is on Gudlaugerís early years, the father and sister who have rejected him, and the recent visitors to the small, dank basement room.
Availing himself of the hotelís surplus equipment, Erlendur lies in his room at night, listening over and over to the haunting recordings of the magnificent voice of a young Gudlauger, reflecting on his own history and the failed opportunity of family relationships. Gradually the facts fall into place, yielding the killer and the motive.
The seduction of such a novel in an exotic locale is its universality and particularity, the cosmopolitan hotel and the very real individuals who people the story. This authorís talent lies in the accessibility of both situations and characters - particularly the inspector, who stumbles across an unexpected opportunity for romance while on the case, and the sad, troubled life of a promising young vocalist delivered into the obscurity of a job that renders him invisible to his coworkers.
The holidays invoking long-buried memories, Erlendur reassesses his life decisions as he sorts through Gudlaugerís troubled past and his sad, ignominious fate. Peppered with the quirky employees of the hotel, their turf battles and petty rivalries, Erlendur is exhausted by this cauldron of loss, disappointment, and rejection, tempered with brief bouts of hope in an often painful world.