Do you know what? I can’t be bothered to faff around. Yes this is Icelandic noir, yes it’s a police procedural, yes it’s a kind of psychological thriller. I should love this book, and for reasons I’ll explain, I should hate it. None of that matters. The Creak on the Stairs is, no messing, one of the best debuts I’ve read for a very long time, and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir is a writer to watch.
We readers have things we like and things that annoy us a bit. Ægisdóttir adopts a fairly stripped down, matter-of-fact approach to her main narrative. (Victoria Cribb’s done a great job in translation.) Her police characters drink their coffee, fight hangovers, bicker and flirt. We think we’re in the heart of the action and that’s just so wrong, because we realise right at the end that we’re at least two levels removed from the thinking of our main protagonists. They’ve got a shell just as impermeable as the dead girl whose story we’re hearing in a parallel narrative. The back and forth in the timelines normally annoys me if I’m reading on an e-reader rather than a paper copy: it’s just harder to flick across. The Creak on the Stairs got neglected for a bit on the TBR list, just for that. Readers are fickle beasts, but the joke’s on me because the parallel narrative works really well in this instance if given room to breathe. I realise this only half way through the novel. In fact, the cleverness of this novel is something I understand towards the end. On one level, this is a book about someone who died: a puzzle there to be solved. The answer is complex but ultimately irrelevant. Ægisdóttir has more to say about guilt than your standard Catholic catechism. She doles it out everywhere: even Elma is complicit in the final pages in a twist that is so brutal as to call into question everything that we assume.
Crime novels give voice to the most vulnerable in our society and Ægistóttir is furious on their behalf. Who is to blame, she asks us, when children suffer? And once we’re trying to think about that, she introduces different types of culpability: how do you deal with yourself, when you have caused a one-off tragedy? Oh and by the way, how is that different from someone who has caused a dripping effect of ongoing abuse? (There’s a scene with a dripping tap which dials up the menace: who makes a dripping tap menacing?) And what of those of us who have gone before us: Beta’s mum, who has gone through two tragedies but is a monster to her daughter? She isn’t in the denouement. It’s almost as thought we have made her mind up and she is as forgotten as will be the person whose gravestone is described on the final page.
Part of what’s brilliant about this book is the way in which Ægisdóttir subverts the form. This ain’t no locked door mystery (though there are some locked doors): we’re aware of layers being unpeeled but the whole effect is to knead and mould the reader. At each stage, Ægisdóttir is not giving us information but asking things of us. She’s getting us to think through the implications: what if it’s him, what if it’s her, what would it mean? We’re involved, we’ve got skin in the game and we can’t ask for more as readers. Yes, Elma’s a fine character and yes we want to read further instalments in this new series but she and the others are pawns in the writer’s game too. We’re all in Ægisdóttir’s novel. And we need to justify our conduct.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.