Sons and Dóttirs

Icelandic Mystery Writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Icelandic Mystery Writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The following is loosely excerpted from a review I wrote on Goodreads.Com about Ashes to Dust by the Icelandic mystery writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir:

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s work reminds me of an Icelandic “delicacy” called hákarl, which consists of shark meat which is fermented for several months, sometimes underground, until the ammoniac stench is strong enough to repel the most ravenous shorebirds. I do not mean to imply that Ashes to Dust is as appetizing as road kill: It is just that its author has a tendency to go for the gamier edge of crime. That was also the case with her first book, Last Rituals. I was surprised to read that Ms. Sigurdardóttir is an engineer, because I would have guessed that she was a pathologist.

Ashes to Dust is about three bodies — accompanied by a severed head — which were discovered more than thirty years after the eruption of the volcano Eldfell on the Westmann Islands, which destroyed some 400 homes on the main island of Heimaey. Attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is trying to build a case for the innocence of the man accused of the murders, back when he was a teenager and the volcano erupted in January 1973. The story gets rather complicated (as in her other book that I read), but the author manages to keep all the threads in play until the very end.

Iceland is becoming quite a haven for mysteries: In addition to Yrsa and Arnaldur Indriðason—not to mention the American Ed Weinman (who has lived in Iceland for many years)—there seems to be a growing trend for the small island to become a major force in the production of mystery novels.

I thought I would segue into a not entirely unrelated topic, namely Icelandic names. You may have noticed that most of the names I’ve mentioned in this post end either in -dóttir or -son. That is partly because, until recently, it wasn’t considered quite kosher to have a last name that was anything but a patronymic.

Let’s see how this works. If I were an Icelander, my name would be James Alexson, “James the Son of Alex,” and Martine would be Martine Wilsonsdóttir, “Martine the Daughter of Wilson.” Take a look at the image below from an Icelandic telephone directory:

Bjork to Your Heart’s Content!

Bjork to Your Heart’s Content!

Notice that the names in an Icelandic telephone directory are alphabetized by first name, in this case Björk, and patronymic. In case you didn’t already know, Björk Guðmundsdóttir is the Icelandic recording artist Björk. My guess is the recording artist is probably the one whose address is in Reykjavik 101, which is the Icelandic equivalent of Beverly Hills 90210.