Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s “The Silence of the Sea,” published in Icelandic in 2011 and now available in English due to an elegant translation by Victoria Cribb, is a fascinating slow-burn mystery of what happened to the passengers aboard an empty luxury yacht that crashes into a pier in Reykjavik. Bound from Lisbon to Reykjavik, the yacht’s crew and a family of four (Aegir, his wife Lara, and their twin daughters) have vanished somewhere in the dark waters in between.
The parents of the missing father hire Thora Gudmundsdottir to investigate the accident for proof that all aboard perished. They are babysitting their two-year-old granddaughter, whose parents and twin siblings are likely lost to the ocean. To care for the child, and to bargain with Iceland’s child services over custody of the toddler, they need the insurance money. But insurance companies are hesitant to offer payouts for bodies that disappear under mysterious circumstances. Thora’s job is to help the grandparents navigate the bureaucratic difficulties that lie in the wake of the tragedy.
The novel proceeds slowly, alternating chapters between Thora’s investigation and the voyage of the ill-fated yacht. Sigurdardottir balances the revelations between the chapters without giving away Thora’s investigation.
Sigurdardottir hints that the yacht itself may be suffering from supernatural intervention. This has certain implications for financial institutions that hold the liens on the yacht. It turns out haunted yachts have a lower resale value in the notoriously superstitious seafaring community. It is details such as these that distinguish this novel. I learned a great deal of Icelandic law and oceanic navigation. But whether or not the yacht is haunted, the ocean journey itself certainly is. Making their way across the eerie, endless ocean waves, all aboard the doomed yacht succumb to paranoia and suspicion.
Thora’s detective work requires good old-fashioned diligence, attention to detail, understanding of human motives, and some intuitive deduction work. She faces down both the Icelandic bureaucracy and the dark mystery contained within the yacht. Thora’s odd and flighty assistant, Bella, offers some lighter edges to this dark and somber story. Sigurdardottir spends much time in Thora’s intelligent head as she sorts through the details of her investigation and unravels the mystery.
Sigurdardottir loads her conversations with significance and mystery, which adds a welcome complexity to her characters. When Aegir, his children and his wife, Lara, admire a portrait of a beautiful woman, Lara asks him what he thinks of the woman. “She looks too beautiful to have any fun,” he thoughtlessly pronounces to the women in his family. He elaborates a little further to limit the damage, but there’s now an open question about Aegir that lingers. What sort of a man is he?
The ending is as complex as the mystery. Thora has her hands full explaining what has happened. The final denouement- depending on your own proclivities - is either saccharin or a necessary uplifting to a dark tale.
Mystery readers who prefer a realistic investigation (an investigation without a proliferation of car chases and fistfights) and are curious about other cultures will like this one.