Book review(s): two Icelandic murder mysteries

11 07 2016

More Scandinavian crime fiction, this time from a couple of well-established Icelandic writers. Deaths at sea feature in both books: two boats, no survivors. But how did it happen?

Silence_of_the_Sea

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a civil engineer, has written almost a dozen crime novels to date, featuring the Reykjavík lawyer Þóra (Thóra) Guðmundsdóttir as principal protagonist and investigator. In The Silence of the Sea (Brakið, 2011, translated by Victoria Cribb), Thóra is hired by Margeir and Sigridur to investigate the deaths of their bank-employee son Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin daughters Arna and Bylgja, who were four of the seven people on board the repossessed luxury yacht Lady K when it set sail from Lisbon with an all-Icelandic crew. When the boat arrives in Reykjavík’s harbour with nobody on board, it’s obvious that something untoward has happened; but is it some kind of elaborate scam, or has something more sinister occurred? Margeir and Sigridur hope to use the younger couple’s generous life-insurance policies so as to provide for their only surviving granddaughter, toddler Sigga Dögg, who was left in their care while her parents and sisters went on their portuguese holiday. But with no bodies, no witnesses, and no missing lifeboats, Thóra’s task of proving both the deaths and the innocence of Ægir and Lára appears intractable. And when the first body gets washed up, the mystery only deepens …

Yrsa unveils the story in split-screen: alternating chapters give us Thóra’s efforts to make traction with the case, and Ægir’s efforts to keep his family safe on the doomed voyage. This, I have to say, is a nasty trick, and highly effective: we’re forced to empathise with Ægir and his family much more than would have been the case if, in typical crime-fiction fashion, they’d simply turned up dead at the start of the book. (And it’s clear from quite early on that something very sinister has occurred—but who is responsible? Is it the Lady K‘s grizzled captain Thráinn, or one of the other crewmembers Halli or Loftur? Or is there some hint in Ægir’s past that he’s not the honest, upstanding bank employee he appears to be? And how does the fate of the boat’s occupants connect with the disappearance of the former owner’s gold-digger wife Karítas and her personal assistant?)

There are several passages of highly unnerving writing in this one, as Yrsa places the shipboard family in a sequence of fiendishly-wrought (and wrackingly atmospheric) predicaments, to the extent that the Thóra-centred chapters act almost as a welcome respite. And the complicated mesh of partial (and often misdirecting) clues serves more to underscore the family’s looming peril than to allow us to beat Thóra to a solution to the mystery. This is a seriously spooky, frighteningly effective crime novel.

strange_shores

Arnaldur Indriðason is a former journalist whose ‘Detective Erlendur’ series now extends to over a dozen books. In Strange Shores (Furðustrandir, 2010, again translated by Victoria Cribb), the detective is teasing out the ghosts of his boyhood home: the disappearance of his younger brother Bergur, in a snowstorm, when Erlendur was ten; and the analogous vanishing, decades earlier, of a young woman Matthildur, a year before the death of her husband Jakob in a boating tragedy. But there are few people amongst the small settlements of eastern Iceland old enough to still remember the events surrounding Matthildur’s apparent death, and fewer still willing to rake over the past’s old coals with an inquisitive and persistent policeman. Besides, there’s no official police interest in either matter, so what can Erlendur possibly hope to achieve through his darkly nostalgic meddling? But when people—first the farmer Bóas, then Matthildur’s younger sister Hrund, then Jakob’s former friend and workmate Ezra—reveal what they know of the incident, a disturbing story starts to emerge …

This is a moody, often bleak story of which I’m still not sure what to make. Erlendur’s role in the book is a rather unusual one (the policeman as amateur sleuth) and one which I didn’t totally buy: the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to uncover the past’s secrets, more out of a curious compulsion than a genuine thirst for justice, are really quite extraordinary … but then I don’t have a strong sense of Erlendur’s character in other circumstances, such as would have been the case if I’d commenced with book 1 rather than, I think, book 9 in the sequence.

Strange Shores is elegantly written, in clean prose and with an assured, unhurried pace. I enjoyed the reading of it, but I suspect it wasn’t the most suitable Detective Erlendur novel with which to start. Still, it’s an impressively subtle piece of detection, and makes effective use of a deliberately-sparse palette to paint a starkly grim crime.

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