One nervous night in Iceland

Sunday Times, 7 August 2016

A chilling tale of lethal retribution opens Joan Smith’s round-up

Iceland is a small country but it has produced some outstanding crime novelists in the past few years. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the best-known, and she made her name with a series of tense psychological dramas. Her latest, Why Did You Lie? (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a tour de force.

Four strangers gather to spend a nervous night on a rocky outcrop off the Icelandic coast. A family returns from a house swap in Florida to find no sign of the American couple who are supposed to have stayed in their home. And a young policewoman searches through dusty files, trying to discover what drove her husband to attempt suicide.

The only thing that links these apparently unconnected characters is a series of anonymous notes. In an atmosphere of growing unease, they start questioning themselves and each other, desperately trying to work out what the writer wants. The answer is retribution in an almost biblical sense, sought by a killer who has been nursing a lethal grudge for many years. Sigurdardottir handles the different plot strands brilliantly, bringing them together in an unforgettable climax.

Val McDermid’s engaging new novel, Out of Bounds (Little, Brown £18.99) begins with a joyrider causing a fatal accident. A DNA sample provides a match to the unsolved rape and murder of a hairdresser in Glasgow two decades earlier, even though the driver wasn’t even born at the time.

The blood sample suggests he is a close relative of the murderer, presenting an apparently straightforward case to DCI Karen Pirie of the Police Scotland historic cases unit. But getting the evidence she needs to establish the murderer’s identity involves persuading a sceptical judge, and DCI Pirie finds herself distracted by another unsolved case. Back in 1994, four people died when a light aircraft blew up and the IRA were the chief suspects. Now the son of one of the victims has been found dead on the shore of a loch, and Pirie thinks two suspicious deaths in the same family is more than a coincidence. McDermid’s 30th novel offers fascinating insights into the ethical dilemmas thrown up by advances in forensic science.

Laura McHugh’s stunning first novel, The Weight of Blood, was set in an isolated community in the Ozarks.  Her second, Arrowood (Century £12.99), takes place in southern Iowa where decaying 19th century mansions line the streets of a historic town that’s dying on its feet. Arden Arrowood returns to Keokuk when she inherits the family home, bringing back painful memories of the disappearance of her twin sisters 17 years earlier. Arden was only a child when she witnessed this event and new evidence challenges the accuracy of her recollections. McHugh’s slow exposure of an old crime is a pitch-perfect example of Southern Gothic.

Leif G W Persson is a criminologist and psychological profiler as well as one of Sweden’s leading crime novelists. The Dying Detective (Doubleday £20), translated by Neil Smith, begins with a retired chief of police suffering a stroke. Lars Martin Johansson chafes at being in hospital and he’s intrigued when one of the consultants asks for his advice about an unsolved murder.

The doctor’s late father was a vicar. Shortly before his death, the priest heard a confession from a woman who knew the identity of the killer of a nine-year-old girl. The knowledge tormented him but he did nothing about it, and now the doctor wants to know if Johansson can use this tenuous piece of information to find the murderer. The bored detective promptly launches an unofficial investigation, using a lifetime’s expertise in a profoundly moving novel about endings.

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