In Winokur’s Iceland-set debut thriller, a forensic scientist’s investigation into her twin brother’s long-ago disappearance may have ties to present-day murders.
The first thing that Brynja Pálsdóttir notices about the mysterious paper scroll she receives at her office is the red ribbon tied around it. It’s just like the one that she wore in her hair as a child—the one that her twin brother, Lúkas, was holding for her on the day he disappeared, 20 years ago. Inside the scroll is an unsigned poem that implies that her “other half” is in a cellar somewhere. Brynja, the busy director of forensic sciences at Legacy Genetics in Southwest Iceland, decides to investigate further, starting with the Book of Möðruvellir—a set of ancient manuscripts that collect Icelandic family sagas, which the poem also cryptically references. However, she finds that her migraine headaches, which she hasn’t had in years, have returned; at the same time, she’s maintaining a secret engagement to Icelandic Prime Minister Ari Ketilsson and also trying to determine what’s wrong with her father, who apparently has some form of dementia. Then, one day, an acquaintance suddenly collapses in her office. He’d eaten doughnuts that someone had anonymously sent to Brynja, and doctors suspect poison. Moreover, she believes that a new poem, which accompanied the doughnuts, is a warning of an imminent attack against the Icelandic Parliament. In the coming days, more verses appear, and more poisonings follow—some of which prove fatal. Certain that Lúkas’ disappearance is connected to the killings, Brynja races to find answers before anyone else gets hurt. Winokur’s story is planted firmly in Icelandic history. For example, Legacy has a national database of DNA profiles of Icelanders—not a criminal database but a repository of “our collective DNA,” as Brynja puts it, which plays a role in the story. The author also sees to it that subplots serve multiple dramatic purposes. For example, citizens’ protests against the databases are a possible threat not only to Brynja’s job, but also to her engagement; an attractive actress named Ásta is stirring up the protests as well as openly flirting with the prime minister. Despite the story’s density, Winokur smartly keeps the focus on the central mystery of the brother’s fate instead of merely compiling a suspect list—and fortunately, the able protagonist rarely lets her debilitating headaches slow her down. As a forensic scientist, she often works with the police department, so she begins the novel looking into an unrelated missing person case. This effectively introduces Detective Superintendent Henning Holt, who makes for a convincing antagonist; he’s barely able to restrain his hostility toward the younger woman, who has the forensic position that he wanted. The best characters, however, are Brynja’s allies, including her reliable, supportive childhood friend Stína and her new, Danish assistant, Elly Sørensen, who helpfully asks frequent questions about Icelandic customs. Winokur’s compact descriptions keep things moving along briskly even when they detail aspects of DNA and RNA testing.
A riveting mystery tale with a compelling lead character.