Iceland: hot new setting for mysteries

Iceland is a country as literary as they come. And now the island nation is developing a reputation for mystery as well.

'Burial Rites' is by Hannah Kent.

With a population of only 300,000, Iceland is home to fewer people than Wichita, Kans. But it makes up for its tiny population with a stunning reputation when it comes to book-writing and book-loving.

Maybe it has something to do with the island nation's history of Nordic sagas or chilly winters that inspire Icelanders to curl up with a hardback or tablet.

Whatever the case, the BBC reported earlier this month that Iceland has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. In fact, statistics indicate that one in every 10 Icelanders will publish a book.

On the international front, however, Iceland hasn't developed a reputation like the other Scandinavian countries as a hot spot for modern mysteries. But two new mysteries are reason enough to give Iceland a second look.

One is by an Icelander and about Icelanders but mostly set in Greenland. Another, by an Australian, creates a vivid picture of 19th-century Iceland. They'll both give readers a chill.
 
"The Day Is Dark," by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
 
The Iceland of "The Day Is Dark" isn't as exotic as it might sound. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, an attorney, deals with the usual hassles of the Western world – a quarrel with the ex over who'd get the flat-screen TV, cell phone calls, e-mail.

Greenland is another matter entirely. Gudmundsdóttir gets sent there on a case and must reconstruct what happened at a remote snowbound outpost where Icelandic employees have disappeared. The local townspeople are utterly unhelpful and there are whispers of danger in the woods.

Part mystery and part thriller, "The Day Is Dark" manages to be both exciting and enlightening. Sigurdardóttir, who works as a civil engineer, gets bogged down at times in a complex geological subplot. But at her best, she reveals a fine understanding of both human character and the unique struggles of Greenlanders, who have high rates of alcoholism and suicide.

Readers learn about how the native Greenland culture and even the local language suppressed discord, apparently to avoid the risk of dividing small communities. But trouble came anyway and stayed – both in the fictional plot book and in the troubling real life it exposes.
 
"Burial Rites," by Hannah Kent
 
The luxuries of the modern world haven't yet reached the remote northern stretches of Iceland in the 1820s: Peasants can only dream of glass windows, let alone fine foods and lush carriages.

But they aren't entirely isolated from humanity. They have a king in Copenhagen who reigns over this Danish territory. They have bureaucrats and ministers. And they have a trio of accused murderers.

One of them, a woman named Agnes, faces death. But first she's sent to live with a peasant family to await execution. "Burial Rites," based on a true story, begins before she's taken to her toward her temporary home.

"I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames, greasy-bright, fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me in a gray wreath of smoke. I will vanish into the air and night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?"

The haunting elegance of this passage from the prologue is a sign of things to come. Hannah Kent, an Australian who's only in her 20s, has produced a remarkable first novel which is an intense exploration of a young woman's mind, an insular community's fears, and the destructive power of those who can entrance others.

There are other threads, too: the fate of women who are thought to think too much, the treatment of those damned to die, and the cost of judgment. At the heart of the mystery: What heat could have wreaked so much coldness? 

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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