An eruption of violence

Nick Leech reviews Ashes to Dust, the latest Icelandic crime thriller from Yrsa Sigurdadottir

The global financial crisis hit Iceland in 2008. They called it the “kreppa”, and felt it with greater immediacy and profundity than anywhere else in the world. A cataclysmic banking collapse exposed what many believed to be a deeper malaise at the heart of contemporary Icelandic society and widespread public disgust with the status quo led to a government-toppling internet revolution.

A stand-up comedian was elected as Mayor of Rekyavík and when the giant ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption brought the world’s aviation industry to a standstill, it seemed that even the Icelandic landscape was in revolt.

And yet, amid all this gloom, the nation’s publishing industry has remained buoyant. Last year it racked up €22 million in domestic book sales and published 1,500 new Icelandic titles. There are only 317,000 Icelanders, but each adult buys 8 or 9 books a year. What’s more, those books are increasingly by home-grown crime writers, a trend which seems strange when one considers that Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir still works as a civil engineer in Reykjavík and started her writing career with humorous children’s fiction. Growing tired, she said, of ‘having to be funny all the time’ she turned to murder instead with her first novel Last Rituals published in Iceland in 2005. Ashes to Dust is her third crime novel to be translated into English and its international publication closely followed the headline-catching Eyjafjallajökull eruption earlier this year. Sigurðardóttir’s publishers must have shed tears of joy when the giant ash cloud appeared as if on cue: the plot of Ashes to Dust also hinges on a volcanic eruption, this time the one that buried the tiny island community of Heimaey under a thick blanket of lava and ash in January 1973.

Ashes to Dust features Sigurðardóttir’s regular crime-solving heroine, the attorney, divorcee and mother of two Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Like many literary detectives including Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Thóra’s character is swayed as much by the pressures and neuroses of her personal life as she is by the twists and turns of her latest case. As Thóra picks her way through murder, rape and self mutilation, she still finds time to lament the state of her wardrobe, involuntary celibacy and the relative shortcomings of her ex-husband. Luckily for readers, Thóra’s knack for solving extraordinary murder mysteries is matched by the author’s gift for the macabre and there’s a certain Gothic
delight to be had from Sigurðardóttir’s prose when she’s writing in full flow:

“One final thing, Frau Gudmundsdóttir.’

She turned round.

‘I forgot to tell you why I am convinced that the man in police custody is not the murderer.’


‘He didn’t have Harald’s eyes in his possession.”

The new novel opens with an ingenious but appalling murder told from the victim’s perspective. In a seemingly unrelated chain of events, Thóra has been hired to block the archaeological excavation of her client’s family home, buried under volcanic ash on the remote island of Heimaey. When three preserved corpses and a severed head are uncovered in the cellar and the corpse on page one turns out to be the man’s childhood sweetheart, he is suddenly implicated in all five killings. To unravel the mystery, Thóra has to negotiate the insular culture of Heimaey and the Westmann Islands, an archipelago near Reykjavík untouched by the forces of modernity, capitalism and globalisation that are seen to have transformed life on the mainland. Here locals are distrustful of change and outsiders, and the local police are a law unto themselves. As the local inspector of police explains in this exchange:

‘It may be that you work differently in Reyjavik, Madam Lawyer,’ he said coldly. ‘There, you presumably go by the book, as they say, although one never actually knows which book they mean. Here, on the other hand, I am in charge.’

As ever, Thóra finds herself trying to balance the needs of the investigation with those of her own children, a new grandchild and her ambiguous long-distance relationship with a German ex-policeman whom she met in Last Rituals. The action skips between Heimaey and Reykjavík and between the events surrounding the eruption in 1973 and the fictional present. Sigurðardóttir herself seems overwhelmed and is only able to resolve her Byzantine plot with an unconvincing and long-winded confession just as the action reaches its climax.

Sigurðardóttir has rather predictably been described as Iceland’s Stieg Larsson, a comparison which sticks insofar as both explore male-female relations and sexual violence towards women. But it ignores the more compelling (yet far harder to market) similarities between Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason, the godfather of Icelandic crime fiction. Both authors make striking use of the Icelandic landscape not merely as a scenic backdrop but as an active component in their plots. Just as Sigurðardóttir uses the eruption of the Eldfell volcano as the trigger for Ashes to Dust, Indriðason had the falling water levels of Lake Kleifarvatn reveal the bodies in his earlier novel, The Draining Lake. Both authors use historical murders to drive their narratives without creating unrealistic spikes in the homicide rate, and select locations that contrast instructively with contemporary Icelandic life. As Sigurðardóttir writes in Ashes to Dust:

‘Although Thóra was no specialist on the Islands’ community after two short visits, she felt that it reflected certain characteristics of the whole country in the not so distant past. Iceland before the age of capitalists. Iceland when most people were on almost equal financial terms and the wealthiest men were the pharmacists.’

It’s this fear of change and nostalgia that lies at the very heart of the recent fictional Icelandic crime wave. In Ashes to Dust the characters all seem to be searching for meaning in a society that has entered a bewildering state of flux. As one islander says, fretting that his non-local wife is being seduced by the promises of consumerism:

‘What if this was her first step in the direction of the freedom she desired so much, and that her mind associated with Reykjavík: the freedom to shop and wander from one cafe to another, the freedom to let her girlfriends envy all her material possessions?’

The author’s social criticism is equally unequivocal. When Thóra asks her client about his brief period on remand, he says:

‘I feel like I’m in limbo. I don’t know what’s happening out in the world, I’m not allowed to read the papers or even watch the news on television. I’ve got a lot of stocks in foreign markets, and this is completely unacceptable. I could be losing tens of millions.’

And there’s the irony. Almost any foreign market would have been a safer place for his millions than Iceland was over the past two years. More striking, though, is the fact that this most unexpected of growth industries – crime fiction set in a country almost without crime – should turn out to be selling morality tales about Iceland’s recent cultural and economic transformation. On the other hand what better time to start asking where the bodies are buried?

This article originally appeared in The National‘s Review section in October 2010

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