Continuing in the vein she so competently set with her first adult crime novel Last Rituals, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir thrills with a contemporary mystery set in her homeland of Iceland, while also paying respect to its beautiful setting and educating by again exploring its history in My Soul to Take.
Amateur sleuth, but professional lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir returns with a case of commercial conveyancing gone wrong. But oh, if it were only that simple. Her client, Jonas Juliusson, for whom she had facilitated the purchase of land and a farmhouse just a year before, calls to say there is a defect with the property. Thóra, unsure whether the middle-aged man had 'always been odd or whether having money had turned him eccentric' finds herself listening to claims that the property – now a hotel and New Age health spa, specialising in alternative treatments – is haunted.
Thóra – ever the realist, with a generous dollop of cynicism – accepts Jonas's offer to spend the weekend at the hotel to look into matters, as her children are with their father and she needs a break. But even before she accepts that the upwind sounds during foggy nights might be a ghost child pitifully crying, the architect for ongoing works to the property, Birna is found dead and Thóra finds herself in a defence case where Jonas becomes the prime suspect for her murder. And that's possibly just an eighth of the plot…
The book opens with a rather tortuous scene to read, but one that draws you in by magnetic force; one set in the history of the place. A very young girl, still in mittens, missing her mother and with an appreciation of duty is absconded and simply left to die down a hole. She is promised that she will be with her mother again, but this time in the presence of God. As God is good in her mind, she is confused. And this is the piece of history explored and linked to the current day mystery in the novel. But what a scene! It is horrendous, but it is impossible not to draw on the rope that has just been thrown at the reader.
Sigurðardóttir's quirky humour and acute observations are present here too, but I'm not sure I'd say that My Soul to Take is better than Last Rituals. In fact, in terms of characters, I don't think My Soul to Take blows the bubble much further. Thóra does not appear to develop too much and her new boyfriend, German Matthew seems to take a back seat, becoming a mere sounding board for her translations when they are in conversation and pursuing the case (he arrives at the spa for a 'holiday'). He deserved a more proactive role, perhaps; after all, his day job deals with security at a bank and he should know a thing or two about investigations.
This is great second novel in the series, full of convoluted plot. There are so many red herrings it's like being asked to locate the one whitebait in a fish market. Sigurðardóttir doesn't just wrong foot the reader, she has you in the wrong footwear to deal with the terrain. We again have the dark balanced with the light, pulled off in a rather unique and skilful way. Watch out for a sex therapist and her tools of the trade as this element covers both those aspects.
Where Last Rituals ended on a light note of consideration of baby names for the teenage parents-to-be, My Soul to Take covers the delivery room. Great stuff and more please. Exactly how long do we have to wait?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir will be at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate later this month. Do get there if you can as she is very approachable, engagingly funny and hugely entertaining. The latter two make it forcefully into her novels.
[The novel was translated from its original Icelandic into English by the late Bernard Scudder - who sadly died during the process – and Anna Yates. The seam of translation and interpretation of style is both flawless and unnoticeable, another credit to this novel in English from Hodder & Stoughton.]