I’ll admit to a growing fascination with Iceland–not that I think I’d like to live there, but I can’t forget the scene of a character in the film Jar City going to a drive-in kiosk to buy a decidedly grey-looking sheep’s head for dinner. Given the weather and the terrain, there must be an impact not only on how people live, but also how they view life. These thoughts were all in the background as I read the Icelandic crime novel Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.
The novel begins with a horrible murder and then segues to a scene in a small fishing village on Heimaey Island in the Westman Islands. Lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir has been retained by former islander Markus to defend what he claims is his privacy. Markus was just a teenager in 1973, and besotted with a local girl, when a volcano blew and the islanders were evacuated in the midst of panic and chaos. Now it’s 2007, and in comfortable middle age, Markus, one of the heirs to a fishing fleet, for some reason is extremely agitated by the news that an archaeological team engaged in a project known as “Pompeii of the North,” is about to dig his former home out of the volcanic dust. His legal action has effectively halted the ongoing dig, and the archaeological team members have interrupted their work in order to allow Markus to be the first one into his former home–specifically his basement which, he insists, he must be the first person to enter. Thora has accompanied her client to the dig, and after successfully arguing that he has the right to be the first one on the scene, she waits while he descends to the basement.
When Markus discovers a severed head in the basement as well as three ash covered corpses, he becomes the prime suspect in a multiple murder case. He has a story–which cannot be substantiated–and Thora finds herself investigating a quadruple murder with all the clues long-buried in the past.
Ashes to Dust is a fairly complex story, and a rather large cast of characters are involved. While she tries to dig deeper into the investigation, Thora finds it expanding into an ever-widening circle, and she discovers that some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. One of the biggest puzzles is how four people can disappear without trace and their absence go unreported. Due to the island’s tiny population, Thora gradually rules out the possibility that the victims were locals and she begins to wonder if the dead men were involved in the Cod Wars.
Thora and her extremely interesting yet independent assistant, Bella form an ad-hoc PI team, and the investigation takes them from the closely-guarded secrets of the islands to the mainland where they question the role of a rape crisis centre and a swanky plastic surgeons’ office in the crime. As with any novel of this genre, some scenes give glimpses of the main character’s personal life, so we see Thora considering the pro and cons of a long-term relationship even as she juggles single parenthood and a son who’s recently fathered a child. The character of Bella, Thora’s secretary is handled in a rather unusual manner. Thora dismisses her rather unpleasantly as dressing as though “she were on her way to the stage to act in a play about the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.” We’re also told that she wears make-up that makes her look like a “vampire.” I interpreted that to mean that Thora is a bit behind the times and doesn’t recognise Bella’s look as Goth. Bella turns out to be a far more complex character than Thora realised. She’s not above using sex to get information, and she’s also intelligent. There are a couple of amusing scenes, nicely placed in contrast to the murder investigation, which show Thora bitching at Bella to not charge alcohol to the expense account.
I had some difficulty with the names–my fault as I’m not used to Icelandic names, but apart from that the novel gave a taste of a Iceland–and specifically, a rather close-knit community that exists outside of the mainland in more ways than one. At one point in Ashes to Dust, it’s mentioned that dog ownership was forbidden on the island, but that most of the cats there died in the volcanic explosion. Anyone have any ideas why dogs were forbidden?
Translated by Philip Roughton. Review copy from publisher.