Ashes to Dust
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Translated by Philip Roughton;
Cover Artist: Photos: Miroslaw Dziadkowiec / Shutterstock.com
Review by Gayle Surrette
Minotaur Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312641740
Date: 27 March 2012 List Price $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Heimaey Eruption / Show Official Info /
The story opens with a murder. The reader doesn't know who the murderer is or even why it is being committed. We do know that someone saw the person leave but we don't know if that person will tell.
It's modern day Iceland, and Thora Gudmundsdottir has a client, Markus Magnusson, who hired her as his lawyer to stop the excavation of his old family home that was destroyed in the 1973 volcanic eruption on Heimaey Island. The fact that the homes are now owned by a corporation, which is building an attraction called Pompeii of the North, means that the dig can not be shut down. Thora manages to get the director of the project to agree to allow Markus to go into the basement and retrieve some items, which Markus refuses to specify, before the building's excavation is completed.
Markus' story is that Alda, a girl he had a crush on in school in 1973, had asked him to hold a box for her and he'd put it in the basement without looking in it the night that the volcano erupted. This was the first time he'd looked in the box and he was surprised to find the head -- even more surprised to find the bodies.
The mystery is set in motion. The police take a statement from each of them, but because of the murders, Reykjavik CID will be in charge of the investigation. Returning to Reykiavik, Thora discovers that Alda, who has since become a nurse, has been murdered -- the murder that opened the story.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir deftly moves between the present and the past as Thora investigates the crime by interviewing people who were there at the time of the eruption, as well as reading archived material. She's also up against an investigator who is convinced that Magnus is guilty, even though he was a teenager at the time of the murders.
Translated by Philip Roughton, the text reads smoothly though sometimes the word choice seems to indicate a much earlier time period than our present -- even when we're in the present. It is possible that this is only an indication of the cultural and attitudinal difference between the countries -- Iceland and the United States -- which I can tell from context are many, but very subtle.
The story also has plenty of red herrings and false leads as well as lots of misdirection. While astute readers may figure out the broad outline of the mystery, the actual reasons and methods may still surprise readers when they reach the final page.