05 November 2012

Volcanic ash covers a crime scene

I found Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's book, Ashes to Dust, A Thriller, on the "new books" shelf at the Northfield Library. I had vague memories of reading Last Rituals a couple years ago and checked out this newer book.

Yrsa signing books
As I noted before, Icelanders are part of a country small enough to dispense with family names most of the time. In her books, most of Yrsa's characters are identified by first names only. As her books get translated, globalization proceeds, and Yrsa publicizes herself on Facebook, she adds her family name. And she adds family names to some of her characters. (However, her lover from Last Rituals is still only the German lawyer Matthew.)

I noted that the title on this dust jacket seems to include a PR person's sales pitch that Ashes to Dust is "A Thriller." Last Rituals was labeled "A Novel of Suspense, but lacked much suspense. Ashes to Dust is not thrilling. In fact, it's anything but exciting. It's interesting. The story is well told. It's about the investigation of a forty-year-old multiple murder and a contemporary murder that might be connected. What kept me reading was not the pursuit of thrills, but curiosity about what chain of events was going to explain the discovery of three bodies and a severed head in the basement of a house covered by volcanic ash in 1973, and whether or how a 2010 murder is related to the earlier crimes. In the back of my mind I kept wondering when something thrilling might happen. But the thrills never came.

There were opportunities. The bodies had been discovered by archaeologists excavating some of the houses buried by the volcanic eruption. Thóra and her assistant prowl around the basement in the dark. They meet with tough-looking sailors on a dock in the dark. They take an aimless tourist cruise as the only two passengers in order to talk to a shady sailor. There are opportunities for thrills, but none are taken.

Nor did I feel any emotional attachment to the characters. Some of them were interesting. Most were just there. The motivations of several of the key players didn't make much sense or weren't explained very well. Students of Stanislavsky and Strasberg would have a terrible time portraying these characters without a lot of imaginative work. Too bad that Yrsa didn't do more of that work.

So no thrills. No emotions. An intellectual puzzle well told, but only partly explained (sounds terribly Scandinavian). Attorney Thóra once again does nearly all the detective work. It seems the Icelandic cops, especially the small town guys, are too overworked to pursue clues — even in a murder investigation. Thóra's love interest is offstage and considering a job offer in Reykjavik, but she isn't sure how to encourage him without seeming too needy. (Even that bit of emotion gets stuffed.)

I enjoyed the puzzle and the way that Yrsa revealed the pieces of it. It wasn't riveting.

Have you read Ashes to Dust? How did you react? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

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