Sigurdardottir, Yrsa - 'My Soul to Take' (translated by Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates)
MY SOUL TO TAKE, the second in the Thora Gudmunsdottir series, is a superbly plotted, Agatha Christie-style novel set mainly in a health-spa hotel on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland. Thora had previously acted as lawyer for the owner, Jonas Juliusson, in drawing up the contract for his purchase of two farmhouses and their land on which the hotel is now built. Jonas, a millionaire with an engaging belief in all things spiritual, phones Thora when he finds a "flaw" in the property - a flaw which turns out to be that the building is haunted.
Thora, a pragmatic individual who has little truck with this kind of nonsense, nevertheless travels to Jonas's hotel to investigate further because Jonas wants to expand his operation but feels he cannot do so without checking out the alleged haunting, which he believes is producing a negative aura and putting off guests (and hence, is bad for business). The brother and sister who sold the land to Jonas have left boxes of possessions from previous generations of owners in the basement of the hotel, and Thora agrees to go through these to see what she can find out (naturally, Jonas is paying her for her time). Soon, she discovers old documents about the family's history, particularly in the Second World War, that provide plenty of real-world mystery irrespective of any hauntings.
When Thora arrives at the hotel, Jonas cannot find Birna, the architect he has engaged to design the future expansion. The reason for this is that she has been murdered on the beach, in a rather nasty way. Thora's natural, considerable inquisitiveness takes over, as she wonders if the death could be related to the alleged haunting. She's quick-thinking, so gets a head start on the police by pinching Birna's diary from her room before they arrive. The diary gives Thora plenty more food for thought, both about the past and about possible suspects for the crime.
The book continues on one level in a classic mystery plot - there is a range of characters (guests, hotel staff and neighbours), any of whom might be involved in nefarious goings-on, and many of whom in fact aren't straightforward when Thora attempts to interrogate them in her role as Jonas's lawyer. (Jonas is one of the main suspects for Birna's murder in the eyes of the police, and Thora is only too delighted to extend her role to that of amateur detective.)
There is a lot more going on, though. Thora's German lover Matthew turns up for a holiday a day or two after Thora arrives at the hotel, and spends the rest of the novel hanging round with her. Hannes, Thora's ex husband, is supposed to be looking after the children while Thora is away, but things go chaotically wrong as usual. Because Thora's 16-year-old son has a girlfriend who is about to give birth, and because her daughter is only 6, this subplot causes Thora plenty of distractions. Another strong theme in the novel is the history of the region and its inhabitants, as the old cottage industries of farming and sailing have given way to new forms of entrepreneurship.
MY SOUL TO TAKE is a long book, because there are a lot of characters for Thora to make the time to interview (some more than once), and the back-story is quite complicated. Thora herself is a delightfully engaging character, full of quick, dry wit. She's extremely independent and, essentially, carries the book with her determination to get to the bottom of everything. Matthew, however, is not developed - most of his role is passively tagging along - and I felt that his character needs work in order for him to fully come to life and fully realise the amusing dynamics of his and Thora's relationship. Thora's family life is unusual and original, in its domestic challenges and its conflicts of mother-love combined with her exasperation with the ways of teenagers and the distractions children provide from adult life and pursuits. I hope Thora's family becomes more central in future.
First published in Iceland in 2006, the novel provides some hints of financial dangers to come, which I presume will feature more centrally in future books. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book and the previous one, LAST RITUALS, is the financial and business context that is woven into the background of the mystery plot.
I'd say that the main strengths of this book are the character of Thora and the very confident plotting. The novel is stuffed full of delightful comic observations and witty asides, which I loved but I suppose must be one reason why it seemed long. I'd prefer to see the subsidiary characters more fleshed out than they are here, which would draw the reader more into their concerns and the dramas that are described. The faultless translation is by Bernard Scudder, who sadly died in 2007, and Anna Yates.
Maxine Clarke, England