On January 23, 1973, the volcano on the Westman Islands of Iceland erupted with little warning. The inhabitants of the island, had to flee their homes quickly, leaving most of their belongings behind. The residents were able to return but, for some, their homes were encased in ash and lava. These homes stayed undisturbed for over thirty years. It is this event that is the foundation of the setting of ASHES TO DUST.
Thora Gudmundsdottir has had more than her share of clients whose wishes are slightly bizarre. When Markus Magnusson asks her to come with him to the home he hasn’t seen since the eruption of the volcano, she is willing to acquiesce to the wishes of her client. Markus hasn’t been in the house since he was thirteen years old.
Hjortur Fridriksson is the director of a program, called “Pompeii of the North”. The group plans to excavate some of the buildings that have been under lava and ash for over thirty years, showing a slice of life that ended when it became clear that an eruption was imminent. Markus “… had refused to give even the slightest clue as to shy he was opposed to this parents’ house being excavated, had gone on and on about invasions of privacy, and had generally complicated the matter for Thora in every conceivable way.” Thora and Hjortur have worked out a compromise that allows the house to be excavated and Markus will be the first person to enter it. He is to be allowed to take anything he wants from the basement.
Thora has no idea why he thinks he needs his attorney with him. She has no idea what is so important to him in the basement. And she has no idea why he is taking so long down there. The basement is relatively free of the debris from the volcano. Part of the roof has caved in and Thora is convinced the rest is ready to follow suit. She is bewildered when Markus calls to her, telling her he needs her opinion on something he has found.
“Thora peered at the floor, but couldn’t see anything that could have frightened Markus 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?’ ”
Markus cannot explain the presence of the bodies. He was prepared to retrieve the odd box he had placed in the basement before the eruption, but the three bodies are more than he can comprehend. How did they get there? Thora soon finds herself defending a client charged with murder.
What are the identities of the bodies in the basement? The island has a small population of people whose families had lived there for generations. If three members of the community suddenly disappeared, it would have been noticed. Why were they killed? This is a fishing community. The number of fishing boats belonging to the residents suggests smuggling might be involved in the murders. If the bodies were put in the basement after the eruption and the evacuation of the residents, who put them there? How many people were involved? Could one man have killed three men?
Magnus tells Thora that his childhood sweetheart, Alda Thorgeirsdottir, was with him the night of the eruption. All the young people of the island were at a dance when word spread about the lava flow. They were put upon boats and evacuated from the island immediately. Alda will swear that they were together on the boat. Unfortunately for Markus, Alda is not available. As Thora tries to figure out what happened in 1973, she discovers that the dance, and the young people in attendance, are part of a secret that might lead to the identities of the mummies in the basement of the house.
This is a complicated story, not because of the shifts between time periods, but because this is a story of emotions and the ramifications of behaviors that should have been examined with dispassion. It is a story that could be told about any group of teenagers in the 1970’s, stories that would surprise the teenagers of the twenty-first century.
In the first book in the series, LAST RITUALS, the author takes the reader back to the middle ages and the role of male witches in the culture of Iceland. MY SOUL TO TAKE confronts Iceland’s more recent past, the period during World War II. ASHES TO DUST goes back to the 1970’s and the secrets and lies of a small society that had been uprooted when the volcano erupted.
Iceland is described as a homogeneous society with little crime. In the hands of the author, the culture of Iceland, as seen through the eyes of the characters, is as different as their motives. These are wonderful books and I am looking forward to the newly released Kindle edition of THE DAY IS DARK. ASHES TO DUST is not available in the United States. I received my copy from the author.
On the front cover of the edition of the book I have, there is a quote from The Times – “She is entitled to join the front rank of Nordic crime writers.” Why the qualifier? Yrsa Sigurdardottir is entitled to be in the front ranks of crime writers (no proper noun required).