Iceland isn’t by any means known for its violent crime, but the crime genre has been developed to very interesting effect by Icelandic authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Yrsa wrote a really amusing piece in Mystery Readers Journal (Vol. 23, No. 5) on the “Depressing Lack of Crime” in Iceland, which unfortunately, is not available online. (You can order cheap back issues, however, and that particular one, on Scandinavian Mysteries, is definitely worth the $11.)
I reviewed Yrsa’s second novel My Soul to Take for the crime and mystery website Reviewing the Evidence, which reviews everything from serial killer thrillers to cozies. You can read the review in full below, or on RTE‘s website, here.
In her essay, “A Depressing Lack of Crime,” Yrsa Sigurðardóttir laments the fact that “the few crimes committed [in Iceland] are exceedingly boring.” As she humorously bemoans,
There is seldom any question as to the identity of the culprit as 99.9% of the population are not into serious crime, leaving the police 300 suspects to work from. Considering that half of these 300 people have already been incarcerated, police investigations are not a mammoth task….An Icelandic murder lacks motive and the murderer is never egged on by any evil impulses, merely stupidity and impaired judgment.
It is perhaps in response to this dearth of real-life inspiration that Yrsa–and fellow Icelandic crime author Arnaldur Indriðason too, for that matter–have sought to manipulate the crime fiction genre, often describing murders and wrongdoings secreted for generations–complicated, elaborate crimes which frequently dispel the stereotype of the accidental, un-premeditated Icelandic murder: one which “…follow[s] an argument between two drunken men—one of whom happens to pick up a butcher knife to emphasize his point.”
In My Soul to Take, Yrsa adds another ingredient to the mix, tapping into her country’s fondness for ghost stories. The novel finds single mother and lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir representing Jónas Júlísson. This eccentric client owns a New Age health spa in Snæfellsnes, an area in western Iceland rumored to be haunted by disgruntled spirits and the ghosts of infants who were once abandoned on its rocky coastline. After Jónas is accused of the brutal murder and sexual assault of a talented architect in his employ, Thóra begins her own investigation, uncovering the troubling history of the mysterious property and the family who lived there decades before, as well as immersing herself in a world where the paranormal no longer seems as ridiculous as her practical instincts might suspect.
Yrsa has a knack for creating an atmospheric tone throughout the novel, with apt descriptions of the novel’s remote and mysterious location and the plaintive wails of ghostly children which wake Thóra and Matthew (her German companion, reappearing from Last Rituals) each night. Ironically enough, these spooks and scares – paired with Thóra’s distinctly unprofessional antics (such as breaking into sealed crime scenes) – actually make the novel feel almost farcical, the kind of chilling adventure tale that’s told around a campfire for an hour’s amusement.
The problem with this approach, however, is that Yrsa’s overall subject matter – brutal murders, sexual abuse, and child neglect – are inescapably serious, and it’s difficult as a reader to reconcile such grave circumstances with the almost flippant reactions which Thóra and other characters routinely display throughout the book. Dark humor in the midst of a crime novel can certainly be a welcome way to relieve a narrative’s tension, but an excess of it makes the characters seem at best, callous, and at worst, two-dimensional creations without much emotional depth. If Yrsa were to turn her future attentions to stories about less vicious circumstances, her darkly antic approach might be better served. For now, readers will need to accept that this diverting ghost story comes at the cost of any real empathy with the victims it portrays.