Sigurdardottir, Yrsa – ‘The Day is Dark’ (translated by Philip Roughton)
Trade Paperback: 432 pages (July 2011) Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN: 144470009X
In the remote, snowy wastes of Greenland, things go very wrong at a mining facility, Berg Technology. A woman employee goes missing, and six months later two male drilling engineers similarly vanish. A member of staff quits and the rest refuse to continue working there. Enter Icelandic lawyer Thora, whose partner Matthew works for the bank that has underwritten the enterprise. Keen for the insurance company, rather than the bank, having to pay out now that the mine has been abandoned and most staff redeployed to the Far East, Thora is employed to visit the facility to see if any legal loophole can be found to release the bank from its contract with Berg.
Thora and Matthew fly to the facility with the three remaining staff who were present when the disasters happened: a medical doctor, an IT specialist, and the woman who resigned, as well as Thora’s secretary from hell, Bella. Another ex-staff member has had a breakdown and is in rehab, so is not included in the party. Berg’s facility is very stark; this is a place where D&G stands for Drilling and Grouting rather than any fashion label. There is electricity, but the satellite dish has been vandalised, sugar poured into the petrol tank of the jeeps, and there is no phone or internet connection. At this point, I wondered if I was going to be reading an “Agatha Christie on ice” novel, where characters are dispatched one by one, but thankfully this turns out not to be the case.
The pace of the novel is extremely leisurely, as Thora and her companions inventory the abandoned mine and try to make sense of what might have happened there according to their various specialisms. They can’t eat or drink any of the food because of possible contamination, so have to live on snack meals. The mood is low, but soon gets even worse as mysterious events begin to come to light, not least in the shape of the inhabitants of the local village, to whom the site of the mine is a very bad area where nobody should visit. I felt that more could have been made of the interpersonal dynamics of the group during this part of the novel, particularly of Bella, potentially a vivid character who livened up the previous novel in the series, ASHES TO DUST, yet nothing much is made of her alleged awfulness.
The author rings the changes as more and more strange information comes to light, and Thora tries to discover what has happened at the facility via her contact with one of the villagers. Eventually, a gruesome discovery is made, whereupon, finally, the previously uninterested police are persuaded to check matters out. After this point, matters proceed fairly swiftly to a resolution that explains the disappearances and why the area is perceived as so evil by the Greenlanders, in the process uncovering a very sad back-story of a hunter and his tragic family.
Although I enjoyed this novel, I felt that at 400 pages it was 100 pages too long for its subject matter; there were too many sections in which various involved characters reflected on past events but not exactly what they were; discoveries made in areas that have already been searched; and so on. Another, to me, slightly disappointing aspect of the book is that Thora is isolated from her family, whose interactions were so amusing and original in the first book of the series, LAST RITUALS. Nevertheless, this novel is superior crime fiction, ably translated by Philip Roughton, though I was not sure if aimed at an English or American readership, as terms such as “back lot” were interspersed with, for example, characters being “stumped”.
If you’ve enjoyed the previous three novels in this series, you’ll enjoy this one as it is very much par for this particular course. If you have not read any before, you can certainly start here and enjoy meeting Thora, an admirably brisk, intelligent, funny and warm person. However, the book’s treatment of Greenland society, traditions and uneasy relationship with the Danes is not a patch on the classic Danish novel MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW by Peter Hoeg.