And breathe. I’ve closed Girls Who Lie, after a 50 page ending that you just have to strap yourself in for, and I’m studying the front cover. The picture’s atmospheric, possibly gives us a red herring, but it’s the details in the monochromatic tones that match what we’ve just experienced in the book itself. Eva Björg Ægisdóttir has set us up again. There are girls who lie, and some do it because it’s fun and some do it to survive. And those of us who judge the girls who lie – and let’s face it, we all love to rush to judgement – don’t care which side of the line the girls are on, and even if we did care we’d get it wrong anyway.
There’s a lot going on there, so let’s unpack it a bit. Maríanna has been murdered; her body is found in a cave on the lava fields. Maríanna is the kind of person that fingers point at: she abandoned her daughter Hekla more than once to go on a bender. Hekla, who was three years old the first time, seems relieved to be free from her mother and who can blame her? But it turns out that perhaps Maríanna isn’t quite who we thought she was.
Do you remember those old Joan Hickson Marple dramatisations? They would start with pictures of suspicious-looking people in a village, looking like they were either murderers or at least gossipers. There isn’t anyone nice. Halfway through Girls Who Lie Ægisdóttir has got me to dislike every single one of her characters other than police officer Elma and her colleagues. They act superior, they are self-absorbed and condemnatory, and as for social services, if their job is to protect the vulnerable then they fail time and again. We get furious on behalf of the unprotected, and then Ægisdóttir asks us whether we, the observers of it all, are any better than the vultures who comment on social media. In this her second book, Ægisdóttir is clearer that if there has been betrayal then we the whole community are complicit. We have to stop lying to ourselves.
There are lies, and liars, all around us. Some of these lies have huge consequences, but sometimes the truth does too. Lies can be spectacular, but also humdrum. Again, truth too. The changing relationship between Elma and her sister is testament to that and a clever contrast with the main plot.
Last week, The Creak on the Stairs, the first in the Forbidden Iceland series, won the Crime Writers Award dagger in the ‘new blood’ category. This blog called Creak ‘one of the best debuts I’ve read for a very long time’ and hey it’s official. I’ll be surprised if Girls doesn’t win praise from all quarters. What I think marks this series apart is the way in which Ægisdóttir makes us assume anyone could have done it. We then spend the book suspicious of everyone, and looking for the worst. There is a logical reason to believe that some of the worst crimes have been committed here. They haven’t but I can’t help but feel that the writer is challenging us. Sometimes Ægisdóttir will throw us a bone and we’ll be ridiculously proud of having correctly predicted just who was at the window, but when it comes to the main who and why, we’re really far from the mark. Yet all this is achieved with a lightness of touch which is quite extraordinary (and a mark of the great work of translator Victoria Cribb), and doesn’t forget that the reader’s first requirement is for entertainment. Ægisdóttir delivers, and that’s no lie.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.