Scandinavian crime writers — particularly the older generation — seem to make a virtue of dullness. Think of Martin Beck in the novels of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, wearily tracking down laconic witnesses and piecing together flimsy scraps of evidence. Or Kurt Wallender in Henning Mankell’s crime series, doggedly unraveling knots of deceit and venality as his self-doubt grows and his health declines.
The Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is clearly influenced by this tradition, although the prologue to her latest novel, Ashes to Dust, is hardly mundane. A woman lies bound and helpless. Something appalling is being done to her with pills, a syringe, a finger manipulating her tongue. When it is over, “the woman’s visitor gently closed the bedroom door, showing far more courtesy than he had previously displayed,” Sigurdardóttir writes, flashing the sly, mordant wit that spikes her engrossing, carefully plotted mysteries.
Ashes to Dust is rooted in the volcanic soil of Iceland’s Westmann Islands, where an eruption in 1973 buried houses and caused a temporary evacuation. Thirty-four years later, Markus Magnusson rummages in the basement of one of the abandoned dwellings. Upstairs his lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdóttir from Reykjavík, waits alongside an archaeologist who is ready to excavate the site. When Magnus calls Thora down, she is confronted with three corpses, partly buried, and one head in a box. Magnus protests his ignorance and innocence, explaining that in 1973 a teenage friend, Alda, asked him to hide the sealed box and now, decades later, to retrieve it. The bodies, he insists, he has never seen before. Soon after the grisly discovery, however, Alda is found dead in her Reykjavík home. Magnus becomes a suspect in a new as well as an old crime, and Thora must penetrate an island community that cannily guards its secrets.
These events sound outlandish, but Sigurdardóttir is a brisk writer whose plain style, in Philip Roughton’s translation, can render a bizarre detail or a peripheral character utterly convincing. Like her practical-minded heroine, she advances the plot not by introspection but by accumulation and with forensic attention to detail. Alda’s life, for example, must be excavated if Magnus is to be exonerated. That examination, however, reveals increasingly complex connections and deviations. Alda was a nurse who worked in a plastic surgeon’s office but who also treated rape victims. And one recent rape case seems to have preoccupied her. So we enter the odious life of Adolf, the alleged rapist, and the tortured mind of his adolescent daughter…who has anorexia…and who holds a vital clue to Alda’s death.
Too much, you protest. But in the densely interwoven society that Sigurdardóttir depicts such accidental connections enrich rather than dilute the novel’s power. “Everyone here was normal,” Markus tells Thora soon after the bodies are discovered, “just your typical Icelandic fishermen’s families.” Violence and depravity belong in the city where Alda tended rape victims and where she was killed. It is the island, however, that holds the key to Alda’s past and to the novel’s more distant crimes. In scenes at times of great tenderness and at others of exquisite suspense, Sigurdardóttir peels back the layers of shame and fear that conceal a shocking drama. “And who was the bad guy?” Thora’s young daughter asks her. “It was the one I thought was the good guy,” Thora replies. Exactly.