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Nordic mystery: The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardottiron

silence of the seaI don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again it feels the perfect kind of book and that nothing else will fit the need just as completely. After the rather draining experience of reading A Little Life followed by the, if not as desperately miserable, still sombre Did You Ever Have a Family, I was in urgent need of a less challenging read.

Fortunately Yrsa Sigurðardóttir was readily to hand. She’s an Icelandic writer of children’s fiction and crime-novels including a bestselling series featuring the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. I’ve never read anything by her previously but saw her latest novel The Silence of the Sea recommended in one of the Sunday newspapers last year.

This is a locked-ship kind of mystery. It begins when a luxury yacht arrives in Reyjkavik harbour minus its three-man crew and its passengers. There are no immediately evident signs of foul play. There are no bodies either. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is recruited by an elderly couple whose son, wife and twin granddaughters were the passengers on the yacht as it sailed from Portugal.  Of course they want to know what happened to their loved ones but they also need Thóra’s help to get custody of the small grand-daughter that had been left in their care.

Thóra, like many in Reykjavik is intrigued. What happened to everyone on board that craft? Before long she’s in pursuit of the truth. The discovery of blood stains and a few bodies spice up the action. Interspersed with her investigations are chapters that take place on board the yacht, gradually building up our knowledge of what went wrong.  Without revealing the secret I’ll just drop one hint – the plot reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  

Sigurdardottir does a fine job of ratcheting up the suspense and keeping you guessing without making the storyline seem ridiculously preposterous. Ignore the promotional blob on the cover hailing Sigurdardottir as “Iceland’s answer to Steig Larrson” – The Silence of the Sea is nothing like The Girl Who …… Not only does that comparison mislead readers it does a disservice to Sigurdardottir and her accomplishment in this novel which is to write a darn good yarn without resort to lots of whistles and bells. It’s not rich in terms of character development but its not devoid of that either.  Gudmundsdóttir is an interesting character, more detective than lawyer whose personal family concerns are revealed in just enough detail to make us warm to her as an individual. The only real gap for me was that I didn’t truly get a sense of Reykjavik or of anything uniquely Iceland. Maybe that criticism is a bit unfair given that so much of the action takes place at sea – exactly where the passengers don’t know since they’ve lost all radio contact and the navigation system isn’t working. It’s just a dimension that I enjoyed when reading Henning Mankell’s Wallander series or, come to that, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. It maybe I’ll find that missing element if I read some of Sigurdardottir’s earlier novels in the Gudmundsdóttir series (scratch the ‘if’ – I know I’ll be reconnecting with her next time I’m in need of a touch of crime.)

When do I get the sound of silence?

This seems to happen to me every Christmas. In the run up to the festivities I contemplate all those hours when, sans work pressures,  I’ll be able to indulge in nothing more demanding than picking up a book.  I even list in my head the books that will be my companions during this time.

Seven days into the holiday now and my bookish idyll has yet to materialise. I forget just how much preparation the two days of Christmas seem to require so instead of reading I found myself in a seemingly endless cycle of gift shopping, food shopping, gift wrapping and cooking. Followed by a few days when it felt as if I was either preparing a meal, eating it, or clearing away. The closest I got to a moment of silence was an hour on Boxing Day but even that was a bit of a guilty moment since when you’re staying with members of the family it seems rude to shut yourself off from the conversations.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the big day is over and the visitors have gone, I can get some more relaxation time. And particularly some time to get acquainted with the new additions to my book collection courtesy of generous relatives.

books2014The newcomers to my bookshelves are a mix of genres from authors originating from three continents.

From Europe comes Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. This was recommended by a number of bloggers who read my recent review of Wives and Daughters so I shall look forward to this. I’m told its more akin to North and South which I preferred to Wives and Daughters.  A review by Stu of Winstondad’s blog   led me to request The Search Warrant by the Nobel Literature prize winner Patrick Modiano  which traces the author’s attempts to discover the fate of a young girl who vanished from a convent school during the Occupation of France in 1941. Thanks to a review by Guy at SwiftlyTiltingPlanet I became the owner of The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe di Piazza which will take me to Sicily in the 1980s, an island plagued by drugs, death and – of course – the Mafia. My fourth book from the European continent is by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir whose novel The Silence of the Sea by which has been described as ‘a corker of a locked room mystery with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.

The two remaining gifts are both going to be emotional reads I suspect because of their subject matter. From Australia I am welcoming Richard Flanagan and his 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel,  The Narrow Road to the Deep North which the publishers describe as ‘a savagely beautiful novel’ partly set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Death is also prevalent in my last acquisition, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. This is a true life account of the five days  at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. I remember reading an extract in a Sunday newspaper supplement and being moved to tears by her depiction of the ethical dilemmas encountered by the hospital staff who knew that they could not save all of those patients in their care.

Now my only dilemma is which of these tremendous books to read first. What would you choose?

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