By Arnaldur IndridasonMinotaur, $24.99, 320 pages
CROWN OF DUST
By Mary Volmer
Soho, $24 292 pages
What appears to be a woman’s suicide turns into a quest that stretches beyond the grave in this bleak and sometimes ponderous Scandinavian thriller.
There are echoes of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander in Mr. Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, another man haunted by personal ghosts who has isolated himself to the point of inaccessibility. That his marriage collapsed is hardly surprising, but it says something callous about Erlendur that he removed himself not only from his wife but his son and daughter in their growing years. It is the children who make an effort to break through the psychological wall that encloses their father while his former wife remains angry and embittered.
There is appropriate irony in the fact that in “Hypothermia,” the death of Maria, a woman found hanging from a beam in her holiday cottage, becomes a springboard for Erlendur’s dogged efforts to solve his other problems.
He remains haunted by a nightmare memory of the blizzard that he managed to survive as a boy, but in which his younger brother was lost and his body never found despite desperate searches. Yet Erlendur is impelled by sympathy for a mourning father to reopen the cases of two young people missing for decades. The case of Maria, in which there is no evidence of foul play, is just the kind of mystery that appeals to Erlendur. Her obsession with the afterlife, encouraged by her mother, has driven Maria to seek communication with the dead.
She sees the specter of her mother, and finds on the floor a book that she sees as a signal from beyond the grave. She participates in seances, talks to a medium, then she kills herself. And it is Erlendur who first questions whether it was suicide or a Machiavellian plot involving murder for money.
He interviews an astonishing number of people as he weaves the threads of tragedy and murder. He approaches problems with an intellectual patience, and he has the gift of not only listening but hearing more than perhaps is intended. Apart from the dead body of Maria, there are no gruesome discoveries in this unconventional mystery. Much of it goes on in Erlendur’s head, which is what makes him such a good detective and perhaps accounts for the fact that his own life is conducted within his head.
Like most Scandinavian mysteries, the Erlendur stories are gray in tone and texture although they lack the gruesome quality of the writings of Mr. Mankell or Steig Larsson. The characters with whom Erlendur works are often ordinary people, bitter, unhappy or disappointed in life, which is why the detective is so adept at analyzing what they may have done and why. There is little dramatic about his investigations, but there is a great deal of realism.
Any illusions about the glamour of digging for gold are totally shattered by Mary Volmer’s “Crown of Dust,” a grim and carefully researched book about the California gold rush. The physical difficulties involved in the hope of striking gold are detailed and fascinating while discouraging to anyone inclined to try it.
The plot tends to defy credibility with its portrayal of a young girl flimsily disguised as a boy, who seeks strange shelter within a ragtag and tough bunch of prospectors while she tries to blot out a tortured past that includes rape, miscarriage and a sadistic grandmother.
Poor little Alex is a pathetic figure and she is fortunate that Emaline, the hard-boiled but of course soft-hearted owner of the Wayside Inn, takes pity on her without realizing she is a woman. Predictably, it is Alex who is scrambling for survival, who strikes gold, which in many ways compounds her personal problems. The book is at its best when it is describing the hardships that men and women endured to seek the golden treasure, while making clear how few survived to enjoy any riches they managed to scratch and scrape from the unwilling earth.
Ms. Volmer has done an excellent job of characterization without falling into the pitfall of stereotyping her cluster of colorful losers, especially Emaline, the innkeeper who has broken all the rules that governed a woman’s world in those days, and who eventually pays for it. She dominates the book and the strength of her character also dominates Alex, who always seems on the edge of collapse.
While Alex’s torment is understandable, she never seems strong enough to tackle the life she has been handed. What keeps her going is her capacity for work and her admirable determination not to give herself away by talking too much. There is enough melodrama packed into the pages without a climax involving the ultimate savagery of lynching, killing and the wholesale destruction of a community built on gold fever. Yet the book is worth reading because Ms. Volmer, in her remarkable first novel, has re-created the reality of an era that few can even visualize now.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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