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.

Oblivion by Indridason

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I’m a great fan of Analdur Indridason’s writing. I’ve read all his books that have been translated into English and I eagerly look forward to the next one. I bought Oblivion and, although I usually go to bed about ten o’clock, I stayed up until one thirty a.m. following Erlendur and Marion. For those of you who don’t know, Marion is an older detective, a mentor to Erlendur. In previous books, I’ve been intrigued by Marion and his role in Erlendur’s life and career so I’m happy to say that since this book takes place when Erlendur is just starting out as a detective, the reader learns more about Marion’s life.

It is tricky to write narratives that fill in a story that has already been developed. I’ve followed, fascinated, with Erlendur’s obsession about missing persons, especially those who are lost in Iceland’s dangerous landscape of glaciers, lava deserts, raging rivers, boiling mud and water. I last saw Erlendur on the edge of freezing to death, being snowed under in a reprise of the death of his brother when they were young. I, like I’m sure many others, wanted to send an email to the author saying, “No, no. Don’t let him go.”

Erlendur’s life is complicated. His marriage has broken up. His ex hates him. His son and daughter in the later books are disasters; his daughter is an addict who refuses to be rescued. In Oblivion we get a glimpse of the early years after Erlendur has left his wife. From a distance, he silently watches his daughter on a playground. Not much is said but the passage is full of regret and guilt. It shows Indridason’s ability to communicate emotion tersely so that it never becomes melodrama.

The novel, since this is a murder mystery, begins with a death, a body in what will become known in reality as the Blue Lagoon, now a major attraction for tourists. However, when the story takes place the shores are barren and the woman who goes to bathe in the waters to soothe her skin condition is alone when she sees a shoe rising out of the water. Disgusted that someone would throw a shoe into the water, she goes to retrieve it only to find it attached to a body.

For the next 345 pages we follow Erlendur and Marion Briem as they gradually fit together the puzzle of the victim’s death. To add to the story, Indidason folds in the story of Dagbjðrt, an eighteen year old who, decades before, had disappeared without a trace. Erlendur had been fascinated with her inexplicable disappearance and, now, with Marion’s encouragement, he begins to look at this cold case.

Indridason is expert at fitting together complex puzzles but his novels are made up of much more than tricky plots. He has a genius for creating landscape and mood. Even those readers who have not been to Iceland get to experience the harshness of the landscape, the bitterness of the weather, and the moodiness of the skies. The sense of daily life in and around Reykjavik is captured with place names, short descriptions, the names of food. It is all very bleak, bleaker than I’ve experienced but then I’ve always been there in summer. That bleakness is as much Erlendur’s as it is the landscape’s.

In more than this novel, Indridason explores the relationship of the American military and the Icelanders. The British occupied Iceland to keep it from being taken over by the Germans during WWII. A year later, the British were replaced by the Americans. Relationships were uneasy. Iceland has a small population, at the time of the war, around one hundred and twenty thousand with forty thousand of those living in the capital city, Reykjavik. They were overwhelmed by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen. Conflict was inevitable. Icelanders were poor. There were serious restrictions on what they could import. The Americans were well supplied with consumer goods: cigarettes, beer, meat, clothes. A black market developed.

Indridason does an excellent job of creating the conflict between the occupying Americans and the Icelanders.

When I stay up until one thirty in the morning to read a book, it has to be very good. At the same time, I felt with Oblivion that as a reader, I was ahead of Erlendur and Marion with regard to the solution to the mysteries. Part of the problem may be that my devotion to Indridason’s novels comes more from his development of Erlendur and less from the plot. In this book, the two plots are more important than the main character and his mentor. As far as the plot goes, I was disappointed with the appearance of Master Sergeant Roberts. It was a bit like having a shoot out in a Western movie and solving it by having the cavalry appear . However, that is a quibble brought about because when I read an Indridason novel, I expect it to be perfect. It won’t stop me from re-reading Oblivion and reveling in the descriptions, details, clever moves, interesting interactions among the characters.

Victoria Cribb has done an excellent job of translating the novel.

I highly recommend all the Erlendur books. However, before you read this one, if you haven’t read some of the earlier novels, I’d recommend you buy a couple and get to know Erlendur so you can appreciate these new details about his life.