Written by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates — Yes, it’s a little strange for us to review a book first released in English in 2010, but I read it to coincide with Iceland Noir where it was the focus of a tour, led by the author, to the Snaefellsnes peninsula where the My Soul to Take is set. If it’s been read, why not have a review?
This is the second story in the Thora Gudmundsdottir series, and it opens with an act of unsettling callousness back in 1945. A little girl is pushed into a coal cellar and left there to freeze. Who is she was and why she was killed forms one of the mysteries in the novel.
We’re left with those chilling questions as we fast forward to 2006 and attorney Thora has a client called Jonas with a rather tricky brief. He owns a new hotel on the rugged coastline beneath the Snaefellsjokull volcano – an area of Iceland steeped in mysticism and legend. He believes the hotel, converted from an old farmhouse, is haunted by the ghost of a girl. The previous owners must have known about the ghost, and Jonas wants Thora to look into it and get some of the sale price of the property back from them.
However, questioning the elderly brother and sister who were the sellers is the least of Thora’s difficulties. Birna, the architect who’s been helping Jonas with the buildings, is bludgeoned to death on the beach. Her corpse is discovered beneath the basalt cliffs not far from the stinking carcass of a beached whale. The police are quickly onto Jonas, who was having an affair with Birna. While protecting her client, Thora’s inquisitive side comes to the fore and she’s soon running her own investigation. She sneaks into Birna’s hotel room and reads the dead woman’s journal, which leads her to explore another old farmhouse nearby, and the local church. She’s joined by her German boyfriend, Matthew, who is like a Teutonic Watson to Thora’s Nordic Holmes.
All sorts of things bubble to the surface – old photos of the families that farmed the land, Nazi paraphernalia, and a worrying etching that says ‘Dad killed Kristin, I hate Dad.’ Did Birna find this out too, and is it what led to her death? Or, was her killing more to do with the fact that she was also sleeping with a local – married – farmer?
Though the book has many hallmarks of Nordic noir – isolated setting, tough environment, a touch of Icelandic legend – it’s very like a Golden Age whodunnit. Taking place in a remote hotel, there’s a limited list of rather eclectic suspects. The hotel employs a gossipy receptionist, a morose waiter, a sex therapist, a massage expert and even an aura reader, while the guests include an Olympic kayaker, an elderly Japanese man, a retired politician, a day trader, and several more. Then there are the eccentric locals – the farmer and his wife, a wheelchair bound young man with serious burns, and his cousin who is a young woman related to one of the area’s old farming families.
When the aura reader is also murdered – via an ingenious and unusual technique involving a horse and a fox – Thora’s investigation goes into overdrive. She flits between interrogation sessions, and pursues just about everyone she thinks has information about the deaths. Suspicion falls on one suspect and then another, and her theories become quite hard to follow. As a result, the final third of the book is a bit of a blur in places as she and Matthew follow ever changing lines of enquiry while trying hard not to tread on the toes of the police, who seem to be two steps behind. However, it is an atmospheric and enthralling read, with a touching conclusion which ties up both mysteries.
I asked the author about the book’s Golden Age feel, and she said this was somewhat accidental. “I was probably under the influence of the writers of that era when I wrote it – without realising it. Looking back I see my style has changed considerably over the 10 years I have written crime fiction and I seem to be getting more cold-hearted and evil as I get older. God knows how it will end,” she said.
Her next book, DNA, is yet to be translated into English, but begins a new series with a darker, psychological edge to it…
Read our article about the journey to the glacier with Yrsa Sigurdardottir here.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars