My Soul to Take
Scandinavian mysteries seem to be popping up quite frequently these days. Arnaldur Indridason, Asa Larsson, Helen Tursten, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir represent the vanguard of this Scandinavian invasion. Coming across Sigurdardottir’s My Soul to Take here at the library I decided that I brief respite from my typical genre reading was in order. Subtitled as “a novel of Iceland” My Soul to Take is an engaging mystery with numerous twists and turns that constantly keep readers guessing.
My Soul to Take is the second novel to feature attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir (after Last Rituals). The novel opens with Thora’s client Jonas, a superstitious New Age type, calling her to ask for assistance in determining if he has any legal grounds to contest the purchase of a farm on the grounds that it is haunted. Thora, who reluctantly agrees, arrives at the farm turned hotel just in time for the murder of Jonas’ architect Birna. Birna’s death sends Thora on a whirlwind investigation to discover the killer.
Thora is a fascinating character. A divorced mother of two, and soon-to-be grandmother she is struggling to make ends meet working at a small law firm. My Soul to Take doesn’t give reader’s a positive view of her role as a mother, she sort of passes the kids off on her ex-husband for part of the novel and their reappearance later in the novel seems a tad irresponsible on her part. At the same time she is obviously a working woman trying hard to perform well in her job and be a good mother. Still I felt later in the novel, as Thora sticks her nose in more and more places it doesn’t really belong, that the presence of her children as she went on to anger potential murder suspects was rather distressing. I’d have been more comfortable if a similar level of distress were evidenced in Thora’s behavior but that wasn’t the case. You do get the feeling that her full-time work, plus motherhood, combined with financial problems have left her a very tired woman. Her agreement to help her client is predicated on her need for a weekend away at a hotel/spa. Regardless of the argument if Thora is a good or bad mother she is a tenacious and dedicated investigator who doesn’t back down. I was extremely pleased that, despite the presence of Thora’s German boyfriend Matthew during most of the novel, she was never placed in a position to really require any kind of masculine assistance. In fact I rather enjoyed that Matthew was rather nonplussed, and somewhat baffled, by Thora’s dogged pursuit of the truth.
The primary mystery of My Soul to Take, teased during the novel’s prologue, takes a lot of turns. Sigurdardottir does a great job of constantly misdirecting readers with short, interspersed point of views outside of Thora’s main narrative. Each of these little sections sends readers in a different direction and challenging what few solid facts readers had been able to glean so far. It’s a clever narrative trick that easily sets leads both false and true. My Soul to Take, from my experience, is not a mystery whose outcome readers will be able to guess by the novel’s end. While the individual pieces of the puzzle are expertly revealed over the course of the novel both readers and Thora constantly struggle to fit those pictures into a cohesive whole. The ending provides a satisfying “aha!” moment made manageable by the fact that intuitive leaps to get to the truth conclusion were never glaringly obvious.
The windswept and rocky landscape of the Icelandic shore provide a colorful and expansive backdrop for My Soul to Take. The bleak nature of the surrounding environment, and a real sense of history (including a deep seed superstitious nature amongst the local populace) do wonders in terms of setting the tone. Indeed, the landscape becomes almost a character in its own right. That superstitious element in particular lends a spooky air to the novel that while reader’s, and characters, know them for false manage to cultivate a tiny seed of doubt.
My Soul to Take is a fascinating novel that keeps its focus on the mystery. While the characters are interesting, including Thora Gudmundsdottir, they are only give enough life to let them interact with the mystery. Indeed, that mystery itself remains the primary focus of the novel and, other than curiosity (at least at the start) there seems to be very little reason for Thora’s investigation. Thora is given just enough to make her character feel realistic but with broad enough strokes that she stands in as an adequate substitute for the reader. I finished the novel without a real sense of who she was as a person. I admire that she is a strong, independent female lead but lament the fact that she isn’t quite as fleshed out enough to make her feel real. Still, My Soul to Take is worth a look for mystery fans looking to give a foreign author a try and the setting provides a nice change of pace from that of American mystery fiction.