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Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review of WHY DID YOU LIE? by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

3 Stars
A few years ago I read the first of the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir mysteries but I wasn’t particularly impressed so I never continued with the series (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.ca/2017/08/archival-review-of-last-rituals-by-yrsa.html).  After a recent visit to Iceland, I decided to give Sigurðardóttir another try and chose this standalone novel.  I’m afraid my impressions of the author have not improved.

There are three stories which are eventually tied together.  Four people are taken by helicopter to the remote Thrídrangar lighthouse perched on a rock in the Atlantic.  A storm and a delayed pickup because of mechanical problems increase the tension amongst the stranded.  A family returns from a house-swap holiday and finds things in disarray in their home with no sign of the American family who had stayed there.  A police officer is given a job clearing out old files while her husband Thröstur lies on the verge of death after a suicide attempt; she discovers files about a case in which Thröstur, as a child, was a witness.  She decides to investigate whether this old case might have impacted her husband in the present.

There are so many plot holes and coincidences that the plot is not credible:  Sinister messages appear in the most isolated places.  A man manages to be very stealthy despite the fact that repeated descriptions of his physical appearance suggest he would not likely be capable of stealth?  Would a reputable journalist stage a photo for an article he is writing?  A person would purchase a home in a neighbourhood without recognizing it from his childhood?  The trip to Thrídrangar is so poorly planned that little food and water is provided and the weather forecast is not checked beforehand?   Also, withholding and distorting so much information when narrating from the perspective of a character is a form of cheap trickery:  “Weariness wins out in the end, though, so he is oblivious to the commotion up on the gallery later that night.”  And why would an innocent person imagine something that makes him look guilty:  “Without his knowing where the words came from, a brief greeting sprang into his mind:  Welcome back, liar.”

I dislike narratives that rely on police incompetence.  There are several examples of incomplete police investigations and a senior police officer actually gives files to a civilian.  And the police are especially stupid in designating their chief suspect at the end; this suspect has no reason to ask the titular question in the menacing messages since he has always known the answer. 

The plot is rather predictable.  The title clearly suggests that people have lied.  Who has lied is obvious because the author emphasizes the signs of lying:  “All the signs of a liar rolled into one.”  By the end of Chapter 15, less than half way through the book, any careful reader will identify the most dangerous person at the lighthouse because of the lack of a reaction.

Sigurðardóttir is often praised for her ability to create atmosphere.  There is indeed a pervading sense of menace throughout, but the same technique is repeatedly used.  Something is always just out sight:  “It felt as if someone were watching him” and “An icy chill runs down his spine when he spots a dark shadow . . . The fog closes in again and the shadow disappears . . .  Nothing can explain the shape he thought he saw” and “If she let herself, she would start tuning into the noises she thought she could hear at the back of the storeroom . . . As if someone was standing there, breathing heavily.”

The scattered chronology can be confusing.  A reader would be advised to make notes on what happens when in each of the three plots; each chapter begins with a date but the reader must remember these dates to realize that events in the three plots do not occur simultaneously. 

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is often called the Queen of Icelandic Crime Fiction, but she hasn’t impressed me.  I shall have to read something by Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Lilja Sigurðardóttir (a relative?), two other female Icelandic crime writers of note, to decide if Yrsa has competition for the title.