Yrsa’s Someone To Watch Over Me


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.

Laxness as a client


Chapter 11

“You! A farmer!” Connor laughed uproariously. He nearly fell off his chair. We were at my parents’. When we are at my parents’, he immediately reverts to his adolescent self.

Connor is my older brother. He is big. He tried out for the Blue Bombers but didn’t make it. He bashes into things. Ever since I can remember, he’s bashed into me. When we were little, say two and four or four and six, I’d be standing in the yard and he’d make a run for me and send me flying. He thought how-far-can-I-knock-Tom was a game.

“It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t suggest it.”

“The old guy’s getting Alzheimer’s,” Connor said. He was rocking around in his chair with hilarity. “That place of his must be worth over a million dollars. Even if you knew the difference between wheat and barley, you wouldn’t have a down payment. You want to buy big stuff, you’ve got to get a real job, make real money.” Connor was a stock broker. His specialty seemed to be putting lipstick on pigs and making them fly. He was always trying to get me interested in some penny mining stock no one else had ever heard of. Flow through shares of gold companies in places I’d never heard of seemed to come up regularly. He leased a Lexus ES 350. Before he’d become a stock broker, he’d sold used cars. He’s always on the edge of making a fortune. He should have been the fiction writer.

“Are you going to see Valdi today,” my mother asked. She was making cinnamon buns. Connor loved cinnamon buns. He could eat a dozen without pausing. His stomach hung over his belt.

“They’re in lockdown,” I said. The flu had got worse. The staff were run off their feet feeding people in their rooms, cleaning up after people threw up, taking temperatures. I’d gone to the front door and the dreaded sign was up. “Quarantine. Do not enter.” I backed away and went to Tergesen’s book store to see if they had any new self-published books or new local histories. You could find things there you couldn’t find anywhere else. There was a book on commercial fishing. I thumbed through it, noted the information on fishing stations, amounts of fish caught over the years and paid for it at the front counter where there was a stack of plastic Viking helmets with horns.

The town of Gimli was a mistake. It was settled in eighteen seventy-five because a bunch of Icelandic immigrants were being towed north on Lake Winnipeg on barges to the Whitemud River. A storm came up, the captain of the steam ship cut the barges loose and left the immigrants to fend for themselves. They landed on a sandbar that was exposed to winds from Hudson Bay, where the forest was scruffy and scabby and anyone with a lick of sense would have immediately left and moved onto higher ground with thick forest, preferably sheltered by spruce trees that kept the drifting snow back. Unfortunately, these people had been raised on the story of the settlement of Iceland.  Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Icelandic settler, chucked his high seat pillars overboard, let the gods of wind and wave take them, and when they were found, settled there. The immigrants to Canada, like the high seat pillars, were cast off, drifted ashore and they assumed, since settling where things drifted ashore worked for Ingolfur, it would work for them.

The land was lousy. What looked like hay meadows were actually swamps but they thought they were hay fields because it was a dry year. The next year wasn’t dry. The water came back. There were only two kinds of ground in the local area: swampy and more swampy. The immigrants knew how to raise sheep and dairy cows and how to fish in the North Atlantic. Swamps are lousy places to try to raise sheep and dairy cows and the ocean fishing equipment didn’t work in a fresh water lake. The following summer a large group of Icelandic immigrants arrived to share the misery of the first arrivals. To make matters worse, there was a smallpox epidemic. Entire families died. Nobody likes to talk about the cause of the deaths, but when you are researching a book you keep coming across embarrassing facts. One hundred and three people died. Nobody should have died. Small pox inoculations had been known for a long time in Iceland. English explorers had brought cowpox scabs and taught the local priests how to inoculate people. The problem was that the majority of the immigrants were dreadfully poor indentured servants and the local well-to-do farmers couldn’t be bothered to have them innoculated. There were, after all, way too many poor people living on a kind of welfare system that required rich people to pay a poor tax. It was cheaper to bury poor people than to feed them.

To give Laxness his due with regard to his short story, “New Iceland”, that had so infuriated people that they had chased him through the night in an attempt to tar and feather him, the Icelandic immigrants’ story from the time they left Iceland until Laxness turned up in the late 1920s, was pretty bad. The earliest ships to the UK were transporting horses for the mines. Icelandic horses are small so they fit into the mine shafts. The ship owners from England and Scotland, not seeing much difference in the horses and the would-be immigrants, simply ran a partition down the centre of the ship’s hold. Horses, horse piss and shit on one side, men, women and children on the other. Actions speak louder than words and the action in this case made it clear the immigrants were beasts of burden. It wasn’t just the Ukrainian’s under Polish and Russian rule who were considered nothing but expendable animals.

The Industrial Revolution never came to Iceland. When other countries had roads and railways, Iceland still had horse trails and horses. There were no wheeled vehicles. The invention of steam ships meant regular scheduled travel replaced the inconsistency of sailing ships and those poverty stricken Icelandic peasants who could manage to pay the fare, could take a ship to England or Scotland and, from there, another ship to Quebec City. The poor people that the rich farmers never quit bitching about having to feed and clothe started leaving and the farmers, seeing their cheap labor disappear went on a rampage to stop them. Unlike the English slave owners and the Russian serf owners, the land owning farmers in Iceland weren’t going to get compensated for losing their indentured servants and share croppers.

Although the rich farmers treated the Icelandic un-landed peasants as disposable and valueless, once they started to crowd down to the harbors to get onto ships, the landed farmers thought this scruff was so valuable that they hired men to disrupt information meetings being held for the potential emigrants. The disrupters made so much noise that the emigration agents couldn’t be heard. That, in itself, was an acknowledgement that it was the share croppers who, by paying outrageous mortgages on their farms, paying outrageous interest on their leased sheep and cattle, provided the rich farmers with their wealth. The indentured servants who were paid as little as two dollars a year plus room and board and a piece of clothing a year, the fishermen who went to sea with nothing to eat from morning to night, who lived in stone huts often with no fuel for cooking, who drowned in vast numbers in terrible weather and poor boats, it was these people who created the rich farmers’ wealth. No rich farmer could take care of his own dairy cows, his own sheep or go fishing by himself. The game was rigged. The rich made laws that benefited the rich and then believed they were rich because they were superior to the serfs living in squalor.

My brother, Connor, aspired to be the modern equivalent of one of those wealthy landowners. He wanted minions to do his bidding. He made life hell for people who worked under him and kissed the ass of anyone above him. It was, he said, the natural order of things. Life was competitive, survival of the fittest, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, the cream rose to the top. His cream didn’t rise to the top when he was trying out for the Blue Bombers. It was more like he was skim milk. He made the most of it, though. He got as many autographed photographs as possible with him in his uniform standing beside Blue Bomber stars. He papered his office wall with them. He let prospective clients assume that he had been on the team. He even had a replica Grey Cup on one shelf but if you looked closely it was a popcorn popper.

When we were kids, he used to beat me at Monopoly but he cheated. Cheating was fair, he claimed, it was just adding creativity to games. The point was to out cheat each other. He developed a philosophy about cheating. The rich got rich because they were the experts at cheating. Politicians spent most of their time figuring out ways to cheat. He was always pointing out articles in the paper about politicians cheating to get a nomination, cheating at raising money, cheating at the ballot box, cheating on expenses. There wasn’t anything they did that they didn’t cheat at. When Connor was playing midget hockey for the provincial title, he went so far as to slip into the visiting team’s dressing room and run a sharpening stone along their star player’s skates. Except he wasn’t sharpening the skates, he was dulling the edges. In spite of that effort, Connor’s team lost. He shrugged and said, “I did my best. You can’t win them all.”

My mother was very proud of him because he dressed well and he was good at greeting all her friends with hugs and handshakes. He made them feel special. Fortunately, for most of them, they didn’t have enough money for him to put his hand in their pockets. When the boom was on in Iceland, he suddenly became interested in his Icelandic heritage. When the Icelandic bankers turned up, he was all over them. He wanted a piece of the action. They weren’t interested in anyone who didn’t have a million dollars to invest. He wanted to show them opportunities in penny mining stocks that were going to go to dollars. They weren’t interested because they already had their own scam.

He had his Lexus, a house, a wife and two kids and a mega mortgage and line of credit. I had the beginning of a pension and ten thousand in a TFSA. I was fortunate that Jasmine had worked and saved before she went to university and, while there, had obtained scholarships. The split didn’t cost me anything but aggravation. The only thing I had that was worth anything was my van. I’d bought my van second hand, a hundred and thirty thousand kilometers on it. I had a complete set of the sagas and my laptop.

At the moment, I had a precious roaster full of hollopchi. Connor, if he knew they existed, wouldn’t have been able to keep his hands off them. I’d slipped my hollopchi into the house without anyone noticing and put them in the freezer downstairs under eight packages of waffles. My father liked store bought waffles he could pop into the toaster. Otherwise, Connor would have eaten the hollopchi at one sitting. He wouldn’t even have said thank you or expressed remorse. He’d have belched and rubbed his gut.

“How’s the Bookster doing?” Connor asked. He’d started calling me the Bookster back in high school because I read books from beginning to end. I don’t think he’d actually ever read any of the English course books. He’d got summary notes for them, read the summaries and after he’d passed the course said, see, there’s efficient and there’s inefficient. Get the grades and have time for other things. “You still working on that tome?”

I don’t think he hated me. I’d just always been there to torment. When he wasn’t calling me The Bookster, he called me Commie Tom. That was because I occasionally expressed concern about homeless people, the mentally ill, the treatment of military personnel, those sorts of people. “If they have to buy their toilet paper at Walmart, you don’t want to know them,” he said. “Don’t waste your time thinking about people who can’t afford to buy their sardines at Sobey’s for full price.” I wasn’t impressed. He and his wife dumped the kids on my folks last Christmas and used a HELOC to go to Mexico. This year my folks beat him to the punch. They were going on a Christmas cruise. It was booked, paid for and couldn’t be canceled.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m still working on that tome.”

“You figure you’ll get a million dollar advance? I read in the paper someone got a million bucks for scribbling something. There’s always somebody getting a million bucks for doing nothing. You make big money, I’ll manage it for you. One percent a year.”

“Tom’s working hard at that book,” my mother said. “He’s interviewing lots of people. I’m sure it’ll be a success.”

“The bloom is off the rose,” Connor said. He never thought negative thoughts so I was surprised. “People are putting too much money into buying houses. They haven’t got money for stocks. However, all is not lost. I noticed at church last week a lot of grey hair and bald heads. Those people need financial advice. I’ve decided to change my speciality to financial advisor for the elderly. You have to move with the times. You hear that Bookster? You have to adapt or die. Just like the birds and reptiles. Except you’ve got to do it faster.”

Connor didn’t believe in God. He thought Jesus was a fraud. He thought church was a social club that could be mined for prospects. He claimed that church was a way to get people to trust you. You were in church, you must be good, you must be trustworthy, you shared the same values, you got to talk to people who wouldn’t have let you into their house if you’d just knocked at their door. In every pew there were opportunities. The problem was that most of the parishioners were older women who weren’t interested in speculative mining stocks. They were, however, in need of someone to look after the insurance their dead husbands had left them.

“You, Bookster, are another possible source. You’re going around interviewing all these people for this book. You’ve got the key to their front door. You could introduce me. If I get a contract to manage their account, you get a finder’s fee. Some of these farmers must be worth a bundle. What’s the name of this guy you’ve been researching lately?”

“Laxness. He’s dead. He lived in Iceland. He’s not a prospect.”

“Icelanders,” he said and took two cinnamon buns out of the pan my mother had just pulled out of the oven. He flipped them from one hand to the other because the sugar was hot. He kept saying ow, ow, ow but he wouldn’t put them down.

“They’re still hot inside,” my mother said. “Wait for a couple of minutes. Get a cold glass of milk just in case you burn yourself.”

Connor went to the fridge for milk. “Icelanders,” he repeated. “They had it all. The world was their oyster. Their timing was off. When the bankers were here, I tried to tell them, buy Canadian, do it through a trust in the Bahamas, shelter your profits. Bury it and if everything goes toes up, it doesn’t matter.” He had the two cinnamon buns in his right hand and the glass of cold milk in his left. He was ripping off chunks of the cinnamon buns with his teeth. Ripping things with his teeth was a genetic thing except his Viking ancestors would have been ripping meat off a leg of mutton. When he finished the buns, he sucked on his fingers to get all the sugar and cinnamon off them. I could see Laxness’s Vikings licking and sucking the lamb fat off their hands. Connor took another two cinnamon buns. My mother took that as a compliment.

“You got a girlfriend yet?” he asked. I didn’t bother to reply. He had an inordinate interest in my sex life. It was probably because he’d been married since he was twenty. He saw me as a bachelor and then married to Jasmine the Hot Number as he called her and, now, as a divorced guy free to hump anything available. There was a touch of envy in his voice.

“How’s Trudy,” I replied. He’d found Trudy in a pool room. She had big tits, blonde hair to her ass, cowboy boots and an attitude. He challenged her to a game and she beat his balls around the table and took five dollars off him. He’d been trying to get even ever since. Two kids and too much watching soap opera and she’d expanded to plus plus sizes.

“Doing good,” he said but his happy face had gone a little grimmer. There were, I expected, temptations at the office. There were opportunities for dalliances with his female clients, although as fat had replaced his stomach muscle those were likely fading. The Blue Bomber photos were with players whose names no one remembered.

I imagined Connor looking for new victims after church services were over, chatting up the widows, inquiring after their health, their interests, never asking about their money,  that would scare them. He’d feel them out, not up, to see if their husbands had left them well off, might mention the threat of inflation, of the importance of having their affairs in safe hands, little things, asking if they had a financial advisor, dropping a hint, nothing direct, just an oh, I see, and looking uncomfortable, making them concerned about that person, taking a stone to the edge of the advisor’s skates as it were, offering, at no cost, to take a look at their investments at some time in the future, raising the danger of another Nortel.

Laxness had used women to finance his writing. His mother knitted to make money to support him, she sold off land and mailed him the proceeds. If it had been possible in those days, she’d probably have sold a kidney to raise money for him. He borrowed money from women and never paid it back. He let them support him. He was an equal opportunity borrower. He didn’t just get money from priests and monks and businessmen. It was all justified because he won the Nobel Prize. I wondered, though, watching Connor gobbling down the fourth cinnamon bun, would it have been justified if he hadn’t won the prize.

“You doing anything for Christmas?” Connor asked and I knew better than to think he and Trudy might be planning on inviting me for Christmas dinner. If I said no, I didn’t have any plans, they’d want me to move into their place and take care of their kids for a week while they lay on the beach in Acapulco.

“Yeah,” I lied, “I’ve got a ticket for Cuba. Veradero.” Connor hated that, giving money to the commies, commies who refused to give the mafia back their property that had been confiscated by Castro, he didn’t differentiate between honest and dishonest capitalists. There was no such thing to him as a dishonest capitalist, just those who got caught and those who didn’t get caught. To him they were all the same. He’d eaten four cinnamon buns and was eyeing the last six. I expected him to lunge toward the pan, grab the buns and stuff them into his mouth. So did my mother. She said, “Leave one for Tom and one for your father.” He pulled another two free. His belly, I noticed, hung further over his belt since the last time I’d seen him.