A Perplexing Mystery

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The Silence of the Sea
Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Hodder, paperback, 15.99
One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s murder mysteries is the existence of a protagonist in Thora Gudsmundsdottir who is so well drawn that the reader feels that he knows her. Thora appears in a number of Yrsa’s novels. In many less well written novels, the main character remains static, there is no development of the character as time is static. In Yrsa’s novels Thora’s character is developed, not just through her actions (in this novel, she is offered a bribe and turns it down) but through her personal life. Readers of her mysteries have followed the Thora’s family events, with her son getting his girlfriend pregnant when he is just sixteen. The couple moves in with Thora. The grandson is born. We also follow Thora’s relationship with her ex-husband and her developing relationship with her boyfriend, Mathew. The complications of Thora’s life round out her character, make it easy to empathize with her and involve the reader emotionally. This is true of all the Thora novels but when they are all read, the effect of character development is much greater.

No murder mystery will work if there isn’t both conflict and suspense. In The Silence of the Sea a group of hastily thrown together individuals are to take a very expensive yacht back to Iceland because the owner has lost much of his money in the Icelandic banking crises. The boat has been repossessed. The trip should, except for the often foul weather between Europe and Iceland, be quite uneventful. However, once the trip begins, events begin that place the characters’ lives in danger. A group of strangers trapped on a yacht far from land creates the potential for conflict and suspense as to the outcome. There are all the classic conflicts: person against person, person against the environment plus internal conflict.

Yrsa’s plots are intricate. She involves a lot of people in the narrative. A good mystery is one that provides all the clues necessary for the reader to resolve the crime and identify the criminal but done in such a way that there is no anti-climax with the reader figuring out the solution before the end of the novel. The Silence of the Sea and Yrsa’s other books will often draw readers back to do a second reading so that they can mark the pages where there have been clues they’ve missed. A well written mystery is a bit like a complex puzzle with all the pieces finally being put together to create a final picture. There cannot be any gaps in the picture. All the pieces have to fit. Edgar Alan Poe, the originator of the mystery, said something like in a good story there needs to be everything that is needed but not a word that is not needed. Now, that’s a tough demand.

Another characteristic of a well written mystery is the effective use of setting. Both the narrator’s and the protagonist’s credibility are at stake if there are mistakes the details of the setting. When I was teaching creative writing, I called these clincher details. These are the details that have to pass the test of the most knowledgeable reader, not the dumbest, most ignorant. I found it interesting in the Acknowledgements that Yrsa says “Special thanks are due to Michael Sheeham for explaining various points in relation to yachts and sea voyages.; Arnar Haukur Aevarsson, first mate, for sharing his knowledge of telecommunications at sea, steering systems and other aspects of navigation; and finally Kristjan B. Thorlacius, advocate to the Supreme Court, for information on the legal side of missing persons’ cases.”

The Silence of the Sea meets all these requirements. An engaging protagonist, conflict, suspense, an interesting setting both micro and macro and a riddle that left me saying “Oh!” at the end. “That’s what happened.”

Buy Silence of the Sea. The greatest compliment one can give a mystery novel is to say it is a page turner and it certainly is that.

Victoria Cribb’s translation is excellent.

Yrsa’s Someone To Watch Over Me

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Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Someone to Watch Over Me
Hodder and Stoughton, 15.99
Trans. B Philip Roughton
I’ve had lunch and supper with Yrsa. I was impressed. Not just by her writing but because not only is she a prolific writer but she is also a civil engineer, a grandmother and the author of acclaimed children’s books. I didn’t ask but I expect that like Wonder Women she leaps over buildings in one bound. I’m biased because I like murder mysteries and I particularly like Icelandic murder mysteries. I’ve got a bit of a crush on her main character, the lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir. That’s in spite of the fact that she has a German boyfriend, Matthew, who has moved in with her. She also has a two children: ten-year-old Soley and nineteen-year-old Gylfi: Gylfi’s girlfriend Sigga; and their son, Orri, now two and a half.” Gylfi got Sigga pregnant when he was sixteen. As the story begins, Thora’s parents appear. They’re dimwits about money and have got themselves in a terrible bind. They want to move into Thora’s garage. Hmmm, as much as I like Thora, I think I’ll leave her to Matthew.

One of the great strengths of Yrsa’s mysteries about Thora is that her main character is besieged by life. She worries that her parents moving in may cause Matthew to move out. She has to deal with Bella, the most obnoxious secretary in Iceland. Business isn’t always brisk and Thora and her partner scramble for work. This is the opposite of one of my favorite detectives when I was a youth: Nero Wolf. He was astute, calm, intellectual and raised orchids. While I will never lose my affection for Nero Wolf mysteries, I now much prefer Thora’s tangled life and her struggle to keep it under control while she sorts out the chaotic lives of the people who come to her for help.
Although Iceland is a society in which there isn’t a lot of mayhem, there has been a financial disaster brought on by bankers thinking they could ride the wave of speculation that was going on worldwide. Iceland was the first country to crash. There were international implications and complications but those most affected were ordinary people. The currency plunged in value. People lost their homes, their jobs, their savings. Yrsa sets the novel amidst the chaos of the financial crises. She brings the society to life.

Iceland, like all societies, has its psychopaths, its mentally challenged, its physically incapable, and its degenerate. It has its honest, honorable, loving, socially responsible people. The novel brings us into contact with the worst but also, in some ways, with the best. One of the best is Grimheidur, the mother of a man, Jakob, with Down’s Syndrome who has been convicted of setting a fire that killed five people. She fiercely believes in her son’s innocence.

Thora begins the process of collecting information that might be used to establish that Jakob is innocent. Her investigation brings her into contact with people she normally would not meet. She has to deal with, as in real life, people whose response is governed by their own self-interest. She learns about the tragedy of a young woman who can only blink her eyes.

“Hi.” He extended his hand. “I assume you’re Thora.” She nodded and he sat down at the tiny table that barely accommodated the two cups of coffee Thora had ordered, assuming the man would turn up on time. Now her cup was empty and the other one had stopped steaming.” The book is full of little scenes like this filled with what I called clincher details when I was teaching Creative Writing. These details give the narrator authenticity of voice. They allow the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the narrative.
I ridiculously stayed up until 1:30 in the morning reading Someone To Watch Over Me. I slept in the next morning and staggered into the kitchen in a disheveled state to make coffee.

If I have any qualms about the book it is simply that there are so many characters I found as I approached the end that I had to go back and look up just who they were. Yrsa constructs her plots well so her characters all had an important dramatic function but I did lose track of Margeir, the radio announcer, for example, in the last few chapters and had to flip back to remind myself. It’s really just a quibble when a book is 475 pages.

If you like a good plot, suspense, conflict, good characterization, setting, enjoyable writing, then buy Yrsa’s latest effort. Philip Roughton does a fine job of translation.