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my soul to take

24 february 2010

I really enjoyed Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's My Soul To Take, even though its plot leaves a lot to be desired and its overall ambiance is several shades lighter than that of your typical Scandinavian murder mystery. In fact, even though the victims in My Soul To Take are found disfigured, sexually abused, behung with dead foxes, trampled to death by unbroken stallions, and the soles of their feet punctured with pins, the novel actually qualifies as light, bright, and lively.

As in Last Rituals, our hero is Thóra, a thirtysomething single-mom lawyer who is on track to become the Jessica Fletcher of Iceland. Where Thóra goes, murder follows. In this case, she goes to a resort developed by her hapless client Jónas, who has bought a couple of remote farmhouses and built a hotel around them, populated by New Age sex therapists and aura readers. Not long after Thóra – and, for no apparent reason, her German lover and sidekick Matthew – check into this groovy haven, dead bodies start popping up.

The cops are a little better fleshed out here than in Last Rituals, but they are densely clueless. So Thóra and Matthew set about solving the mystery in a desultory fashion, stopping for extensive flirtation with each other and preoccupied with Thóra's parenting issues, which include her 16-year-old son taking off around the island in his mom's camper with his pregnant girlfriend and 6-year-old sister.

Jónas's resort resembles nothing so much as an Agatha Christie hotel or great house, stocked with suspects who outvie one another in sinisterness. None of them makes any move to check out, despite the patent fact that one of them is busy killing the others. Jónas himself is the prime suspect. To make matters worse, he's called Thóra to the hotel in the first place because it's haunted by the ghost of a little girl.

Long-buried secrets, preferably Nazi- or Stasi-related, underpin quite a few Nordic policiers, and My Soul To Take generates some chills with its flashbacks to 1945. Yet ultimately, it's an overpopulated, undersuspenseful whodunit.

Why did I like it so much? The characters are fresh and memorable, and the atmosphere is lugubrious. As long as you are looking for entertainment instead of existential vertigo, you can't go wrong following the adventures of Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. My Soul To Take: A novel of Iceland. [Sér grefur gröf, 2006.] Translated by Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates. 2009. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.