Note: This novel is WINNER of the 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. The author was also WINNER of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award in 2010.
“Anyone would have thought the skipper was drunk; the yacht seemed to be heading perilously close to the harbor wall moving much too fast…There was a rending screech. No figures were visible behind the large windows of the bridge; no crew members appeared on deck. …[Then] the massive steel hull crunched against the timber. The noise was ear-splitting.…”
Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s prize-winning noir thriller features several murders, all of which take place aboard a large yacht which has been traveling from Portugal to its base in Reykjavik during a gale. This “locked boat” mystery, similar to the “locked room” mysteries pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins, involves characters “locked” in a place from which they cannot escape, and when a murder takes place, both the victim and the killer are among the characters known to each other and to the reader. The author provides hints and clues throughout as the murders take place, encouraging the reader to become emotionally involved in the search for the killer, as possible motivations for murder are discovered for virtually all the characters. Sigurdardottir takes this a step further, keeping her murderer and her suspects on the “locked boat,” while adding an investigator on shore, after the fact – Thora Gudmundsdottir, a lawyer/sleuth who has been hired at the behest of a devastated family.
The action gets off to a fast start, as an elderly couple stands in the cold on the dock awaiting the arrival of the yacht at the end of its trip from Portugal – the parents of a man who has been on board with his wife and eight-year-old twin daughters. Accompanying the old folks is the family’s youngest daughter, about two, who was too young to travel with her parents and sisters. As the yacht arrives, obviously abandoned, the folks awaiting their son’s arrival fear, not only for their family, clearly not on the yacht any longer, but also for the little granddaughter accompanying them whom they are too old to adopt if her parents are missing. Their case is particularly difficult because they have very little money, and they will not be able to get any support from their son’s estate to take care of their granddaughter while the investigation is ongoing until it can be proven that the their son and his wife have actually died. The next day Thora Gudmundsdottir takes their case, only to discover that the son and his wife, living relatively simple lives in Iceland, have taken out insurance policies worth two million Euros apiece.
The subsequent action involving violence and disappearances evolves through two different points of view and time frames as they appear and then alternate throughout the novel. One narrative includes the interactions of the characters aboard the yacht, with their detailed thoughts, fears, and actions, including murder, while they are actually taking place. The second, more rational narrative describes the activities of Thora, the lawyer, as she investigates the yacht after it crashes, with all passengers missing. By alternating the two points of view, the author is able to show details, actions, and conversations known only to the characters aboard the yacht as their fates unfold, at the same time that she is also able to include an experienced legal mind to raise questions about the possible hidden agendas of these characters. As the action shifts between their points of view and different time periods, the tension between the action as disasters are taking place, and the action in the aftermath of the yacht’s arrival keeps readers totally engaged as they view past and present simultaneously.
Atmospheric, the novel contains suggestions of spiritual involvement, with characters having nightmares, the scent of perfume appearing without warning, people thinking they have seen or heard a stranger, and rumors of a stowaway hiding on the yacht. Even after the yacht turns up at the harbor empty, Thora still feels the fearsome pull of the unknown, as she boards the empty boat: “The atmosphere was really eerie…. I can’t get that creepy atmosphere out of my mind…as if the people were still there, as if they didn’t realize they were supposed to have vanished.” These elements enhance the effects of some of the realistic details as murder after murder takes place. The tension further increases as the crew discovers interference on the radio, learns that the satellite phone is not working, and knows that there are no cellphones or cameras working on board.
An unusual feature of this “locked boat” novel is that it is not even clear how many people – all suspects – are actually aboard this yacht, a technique which adds even more impact to the dramatic action. The reader knows that there are two crew members and the captain in charge of the ship, along with a family of four. Aegir (the son whose parents and baby daughter were waiting for him at the dock) is the head of this family, and he is there as part of the financial “resolution committee” which is assessing the value of the yacht and its contents so that it can be repossessed. Aegir, who has minimal training in seamanship, offers to take some turns as a crew member so that they can all get back to Iceland as soon as possible. The whereabouts of the wife of the owner of the vessel, along with her assistant, are unclear. She has been trying to board the yacht to collect some of her clothing and personal items, and at one point the lock to the door of her cabin is opened, though no one saw her. The person who was supposed to be the fourth crew member broke his leg and returned to Iceland early. Each of these people plays a role in the narrative and adds to the suspense.
Throughout the novel, the author adds historical depth by providing lively descriptions and even comparisons to other ships on which all crew and passengers have also disappeared. The disappearance of everyone onboard the Mary Celeste, four hundred miles east of the Azores in 1872 inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a story in 1884 in which he imagined the ship being captured by an ex-slave. (See Notes.) The disappearance of all three people on the Kaz II off the coast of Australia in 2007 is one of the more recent disappearances subjected to much more evaluation via technology. (See Notes.) By writing about a subject sure to arouse excitement and interest in the minds of her readers and providing a lively literary style, Yrsa Sigurdardottir captures her reader and entertains with style.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.salomonssonagency.se/
The Mary Celeste, which was discovered with all people missing from the ship in 1872, has a fascinating story told here: https://commons.wikimedia.org
The Kaz II from Australia, was found abandoned in 2007, with no life onboard. This story has been followed up with technical research and is reported here: http://www.theparanormalguide.com/
A yacht similar to the one in this novel is docked in Reykjavik. http://icelandmonitor.mbl.is
The Northern Lights, with the white streak representing a passing plane, illuminate Grotta, where the ship in this novel appeared to have stopped on the way to Reyjavik. Did someone leave the ship there? http://www.telegraph.co.uk Photo by Kristjan-Unnar-Kristjansson.
ARC: Minotaur Books