A Perplexing Mystery


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.