There is pleasure in reading a well constructed murder mystery. The beginning punctuated by minor incidents and details that seem no more than background and setting but, by the end, are crucial to the solving of the mystery.
A well written novel doesn´t trick the reader by withholding information. Instead, the evidence is there in the story and, as the story unfolds, the reader, along with the detective, can fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The skill and talent of the author is in the creating of the puzzle, in the pacing of the information, in the creating of suspense. Done right and the book is a page turner, a book a reader doesn´t want to put down.
My Soul To Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir fits the bill.
Her novel begins with a crime being committed in the distant past as a little girl is lowered down a hole to her death. The novel then shifts into the present in which a current murder occurs. Then a second murder occurs in the present. The murder in the distant past is known to the reader but not to the lawyer/detective. As the original story of the little girl threads its way through the present events, it give the novel a heart. By the time we reach the end of the novel we are prepared to weep along with Lara for a tragedy that has occurred many years before
Thora Gudmundsdöttir, the lawyer with an insatiable curiosity and a determination to know why and how things happen, is an interesting type of detective. Her life is complicated by her being a single mother with two children, an ex –husband, and a German boyfriend who doesn’t speak Icelandic. Her personal relationships add both a sense of pathos and hilarity. The children, with their natural self-involvement, are not the slightest bit interested in either their mother’s work as a lawyer or as a solver of crimes. They are more concerned with having to listen to a father who thinks he’s a great Karaoke singer.
What makes this novel particularly Icelandic isn’t just the setting but also the use of Icelandic folk lore. The folk lore isn’t just background colour but an essential part of the story.
For example, the both Thora and the reader are mystified by the details of foxes and pins only to have their importance revealed little by little until it is obvious that they are crucial to the unraveling of the mystery.
As a reader, I appreciate the flashes of humour created by the inclusion of minor characters such as the sex therapist who works at the resort where the murders take place. Yrsa even uses her boyfriend Mathew’s not knowing Icelandic as a plot element and a device for adding levity. Nothing is wasted in Yrsa’s novels for both the sex therapist and Mathew, Thora’s boyfriend, have a role to play in the plot.
The opening of the novel is heart wrenching but I didn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the story. Thank goodness, for as a reader of murder mysteries, I was intrigued by how the author handled plot, setting and character and how, gradually, a complex puzzle was finally assembled. Yrsa, in her day job, is an engineer, and it is obvious that she is used to fitting complex structures together.
I’d add this My Soul To Keep to my list of books by Icelandic authors to put under the Christmas tree.
(If you are in Gimli, Manitoba, all of Yrsa’s novels can be found at Tergesent’s bookstore.)