Someone To Watch Over Me (English translation, 2013) and The Silence of the Sea (English translation, 2014) are books 5 and 6 in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Icelandic crime series featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. I’m caught up, for now anyway, with these novels enriched by the landscape, culture, mores, and preoccupations of modern Iceland (with a side trip to Greenland in The Day Is Dark, #4).
Thóra’s law practice tends to be chronically low on run-of-the-mill clients, so she’s always ready to take on unusual cases that challenge her to learn about new subjects and, inevitably, delve into a mystery. In Someone, she realizes how little she knows about the care of physically and intellectually challenged adults, when she’s asked to reopen a case in which a young man with Down syndrome has been charged with the deaths, by arson, of five people at a residential home.
In Silence, Thóra must gain an understanding of marine navigation and communication to successfully determine what happened when a luxury yacht returns to Iceland empty, missing its crew and the family of four who were passengers.
Thóra navigates divorce, new romance, complicated family dynamics, the world’s worst secretary, bleak Nordic weather, and Iceland’s economic crisis with equanimity if not optimism. But her work brings her into the shadows: horrific murders, pitiful clients, shocking discoveries, and disturbing circumstances that may (or may not) overlap with the supernatural.
The Thóra series is classified as “noir,” and there is a lot of dark here. True to form, in both Someone and Silence, Thóra must literally poke around in the dark––at the burnt-out residential home and within the deserted yacht.
Yet there’s a contrast between Thóra’s personality and the dreadful facts she unearths. Thóra is cognizant of, even sympathetic to, her clients’ troubles, but she’s also ever so slightly above them, moving through them, toward truth, justice, or, at the very least, a resolution. To borrow a phrase from the title of an earlier book in the series: the day may have been dark, but there is a glimmer of dawn or perhaps the northern lights.
Yrsa’s* narrative includes both Thóra’s point of view and that of many other characters, both major and minor––and it is only as the novel proceeds that we begin to piece together who’s important, who’s secondary. Yrsa is masterful at revealing temperament in an economical sketch. In Someone, I was struck by this brief reflection by Svava, a nurse caring for Ragna, a young woman who’s paralyzed:
[Ragna] had spent many years of her short life in hospital beds, and would be in one until it ended. . . . Svava wished the room could be made more comfortable somehow, but she thought any attempt to do so would be like hanging Christmas lights on a shotgun. The girl wouldn’t be in the room for long no matter what, so it was futile to make any kind of effort doing it up; Svava’s role, like the others’ in the department, was to nurse and heal, not to play interior designer.
The lights/shotgun image (yikes!) is a specific revelation about Svava , but the passage also reflects a blunt, no-nonsense outlook embodied not only by Thora, but by enough of Yrsa’s characters that I’ve come to think of it (for lack of broader knowledge) as an essential aspect of the Icelandic personality: yes, it’s terrible/frightening/depressing, but I’ve got a job to do, so let me get on with it.
If you’re in the mood for a crime series that’s dark, addictive, and off-the-beaten track: consider Thóra.
* I learned via Wikipedia that it is correct to use the author’s given name, Yrsa. With Icelandic names, the last name (Sigurðardóttir) is a patronymic (“daughter of Sigurdar”) and not a family name.