Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir is the third book in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir thriller series (available March 27, 2012).
In January 1973, the Eldfell volcano on the Icelandic island of Heimaey erupted, forcing the evacuation of 5,300 residents.
It took just six hours to transport everyone except essential emergency workers to the mainland, and incredibly only one person was killed as a direct consequence of the eruption. But months later, when people began to return to the island, they found many of the buildings that had survived the lava flow were now buried in thick, black volcanic ash.
And several dozen of them remained that way—untouched and silent—for more than thirty years.
Now here’s a thought: If you dug out those buried houses today, what would you find inside them?
Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardóttir derives her inspiration from scenarios such as this: taking a true historic event, considering its consequences and implications, then adding a liberal helping of “what-ifs” to create a mystery that’s grounded in fact and fueled by the infinite peculiarities of human behavior.
The catalyst for Ashes to Dust, her third novel featuring attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is “Pompeii of the North” a current, real-life archaeological project to excavate the remaining buried houses on Heimaey.
The first “what-if”: What if someone sued to stop his old family home from being excavated?
Businessman Markús Magnússon hires Thóra to do just that, but the best she can accomplish is to persuade the archaeologists that Markús be the first person to enter the basement when the digging is done. He insists he needs to recover something buried there, and Thóra figures the mystery item is bound to be more embarrassing than incriminating to Markús. After all, he was only fifteen when the volcano erupted. How bad could this secret be?
Needless to say, she’s asking the wrong question. The right question would be: How did three dead bodies and a decapitated head wind up in Markús Magnússon’s basement?
Thóra peered at the floor, but couldn’t see anything that could have frightened Markús that much, only three mounds of dust. She moved her flashlight 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 flashlight 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 the photographs of mummies she’d once seen in National Geographic. “Who are these people?”
“I don’t know,” said Markús…
Suddenly, Markus is a murder suspect. And when his high-school friend Alda—one-time girl of his dreams and the only person who might be able to explain about the decapitated head—turns up dead, he’s on the hook for that too.
This is all much more than Thóra bargained for.
Carrying on an internal monolog that is equal parts rhetorical and self-pitying, Thóra can be a hard heroine to embrace. She’s a bit of a grump and she’s never as ready for a challenge as I’d like her to be. She’s rarely the smartest girl in the room, she can’t resist comparing herself to other women (particularly with regard to her appearance), and she invariably lets her personal prejudices determine her actions. In a word: she’s ordinary.
To be fair, however, she has reason to grouse. She’s hardly “living the dream” as a divorced mom of two whose teenage son has made her a grandmother well before her time. Her ex-husband Hannes, a successful doctor, remains an annoyance in her life, and her German boyfriend Matthew Reich (whom she—and we—met in Yrsa’s Last Rituals) is back in Germany and uncertain about relocating to Iceland.
Also, it could be precisely because Thóra is so ordinary that the secondary characters in Yrsa’s books take on such dimension. One of the most compelling here is young Tinna, the witness no one (except the reader) knows about. Her mind is a complicated place indeed.
Tinna puffed up her cheeks then let the air leak out while she thought about all of this. Fat cheeks. Skinny cheeks. Fat cheeks. Skinny cheeks…Here was proof that you didn’t need to eat to become fat. Air could make you fat. She stiffened. Everything was full of air. It was everywhere, and there was nowhere to hide. She would have to try to breathe less.
Then there’s Bella, Thóra’s assistant and nemesis. Rude, overweight, and a bit of a punk, Bella irritates Thóra simply by being Bella. But the more we see Bella in action the more we appreciate her. Thóra’s reluctance to accept her says less about Bella than about Thóra herself.
Mostly, however, the star here is Iceland with all its glorious quirks and characters, like Kjartan, the harbormaster who describes happenings on the island just before the 1973 volcanic eruption.
“A woman who lived on the edge of town, at the place where the eruption began, was amazed to see that the elves were packing up and moving out two days before it started.”
“Elves?” repeated Thóra carefully. “I see.” She decided to keep her opinion to herself where elves were concerned.
“Yes, and several days earlier, a little girl told her parents that an eruption was about to happen at the place where the fissure was formed.” Kjartan shrugged. “There are other stories like this, about unexplained events just prior to the disaster … I actually believe that some people can … sense catastrophes before they happen—just as animals seem to. However, I’m not one of them.”
Thóra silently thanked God for that small mercy.
Our heroine Thóra might disdain the oddities and nonconformists around her, but her creator Yrsa Sigurdardóttir celebrates them in well-crafted mysteries that continue to be distinctive and surprising.
Leslie Gilbert Elman, author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts, would like to remind you—subtly—that books make excellent gifts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.