The Doll, by Yrsa Sigarðardóttir – book review

We cover a lot of Icelandic crime fiction on this site, so to have had nothing until now from the famous Yrsa Sigarðardóttir has been a serious omission. But I approached The Doll with some trepidation: it’s had so-so reviews and somehow I had got the idea this would be a supernatural adventure, which isn’t my sort of thing. ‘It’s too complicated,’ said too many reviewers, but an outstanding review from the always excellent Jen Lucas reassured me. So let’s start by saying: this book is not supernatural – it’s a police procedural. And to use ‘procedural’ language, there are about four moving parts, or as we usually call them, sub-plots, involving addiction, alleged abuse, blackmail and going on holiday by mistake. Sigarðardóttir does her best to mix them all up. So there is a great deal going on. But this is not a difficult book to follow. Sigarðardóttir avoids undue red herrings. It would have been good to have been familiar with the characters: Huldar, Erla and Freyja all have previous and there’s plenty of to and fro as they bicker and flirt. But, again, it isn’t too hard to work it all out. And Victoria Cribb has done a good translation. So don’t be scared.

I was about half way through the book when I listened to Rafael Behr’s Politics on the Couch podcast. Behr and his guest Lee de-Wit discussed moral psychology and, in particular, the idea that fairness means different things to the left (the reduction of oppression) and the right (chaos is unfair, order is not). It isn’t an original thought to apply this tension to the best of the crime genre, but I was more aware of it as I raced through the second half of the book. The Doll weaves together so many different notions of fairness and justice and, for a police procedural, is relatively relaxed about what we might now call the ‘order’ question. The end of the novel will have you aware of both the neatness of the plot but also the random unfairness and messiness of that plot’s effect on the main characters and in particular Rósa whose burden is appalling to witness. But then there’s an epilogue, and a final twist. Without the twist, this is a crime novel worth reading, but the epilogue takes it all to the next level: it’s about redemption and second chances. And this is where Behr and de-Wit come back in. Sigarðardóttir uses the force of the twists and turns to ask us where we stand on the fairness continuum. As the West Wing fictional character Robert Ritchie would say: ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know.’ Huldar and Erla and Freyja will carry on dealing with it. Sigarðardóttir will carry on writing about it. And on the one hand crime fiction of this quality is something to applaud. But, as another fictional character once said, doesn’t that bother you?

Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the review copy.

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