Ashes to Dust, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

by Peter

This is third book in Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigardardottir’s series about Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a Ashes to Dust, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir single mother and lawyer living in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is among my favorite writers; she writes excellently and keeps improving.  Ashes to Dust mostly takes place at Vestmannaeyjar (The Westman Islands), a small archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. Interestingly, the archipelago came to international attention in January 1973, when the volcano Eldfjell erupted. The eruption created a 700-foot-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island’s 5000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland. This is the backdrop for the dark mystery in Ashes to Dust.

When the authorities decides to dig out some of the houses that were buried when the volcano erupted at the Westman Islands more than 30 years ago, in order to create a volcanic tourist attraction dubbed ‘The Pompeii of the North’, Markus Magnússon hires Thora to try to prevent the excavation of the house where he and his family lived. When that proves impossible, he makes Thora negotiate for him so that he is permitted to be the first person into the basement when it becomes accessible. When it is, he enters the basement alone.

Soon after, he calls for Thora to come down there:

Thóra peered at the floor, but couldn’t see anything that could have frightened Markús that much, only three mounds of dust. She moved the light of her torch over them. It took her some time to realize what she was seeing— and then it was all she could do not to let the torch slip from her hand. ‘Good God,’ she said. She ran the light over the three faces, one after another. Sunken cheeks, empty eye-sockets, gaping mouths; they reminded her of photographs of mummies she’d once seen in National Geographic. ‘Who are these people?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Markús…

The basement contains three dead bodies, covered with volcanic ash, and in addition a skull that had been kept in a box. The body belonging to the skull is missing.

Markús Magnússon, Thora’s client, was only a teenager when the volcano erupted. He claims that he had been asked to pick up the box for a woman who was his childhood sweetheart, and that he didn’t know that it contained a skull. Now he falls under suspicion and hires Thóra Gudmundsdottir to defend him. The case is difficult, and when the childhood sweetheart is murdered it gets even more complicated.

Thora feels the police are not doing enough for her client, and starts to investigate the murders herself. She travels to the Westman Islands, where she encounters a wall of silence. Everywhere there are omissions, lies, hidden facts and nothing is quite what it seems to be.

The plot in Ashes to Dust is clever, rich and very intriguing, with several surprising twists and turns, and Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is an excellent protagonist. Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s story telling seems to be improving from book to book, and I thought this book was fabulous – in my opinion her best so far; tense and perhaps even a little terrifying. This is outstanding, very intelligent crime fiction!

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