A suspicious fire in a home for the severely disabled leads to an investigation of the Icelandic social safety net in Thóra Gudmundsdóttir's fifth outing (The Day Is Dark, 2013, etc.).
The arson has supposedly been solved, and one of the house's residents, Jakob Porbjarnardóttir, who has Down syndrome, has been convicted and sentenced to a psychiatric facility. However, one of Jakob’s fellow prisoners, a sex offender and all-around creep named Jósteinn Karlsson, hires Thóra under the pretense that Jakob’s previous lawyer missed compelling evidence that would have pointed to the true fire-starter. What Karlsson really wants, however, is to play a complex game of cat and mouse with our heroine, using her to avenge what he perceives as past wrongs. Sigurdardóttir’s thriller moves slowly at first but picks up speed as Thóra speaks to more people involved with the burned-down facility—the families of the other residents, the therapists and other staff who worked there, and the beleaguered former director, who is certainly hiding something (as is Jakob’s first, barely competent lawyer). When she discovers that a comatose patient had been pregnant at the time of her death in the fire, the mystery deepens, and Thóra’s tenacity becomes more compelling and poignant. The backdrop of the novel is, of course, the collapse of the Icelandic economy, with rocketing unemployment and everyone feeling squeezed (literally, in Thóra’s case; her household is composed of her; her out-of-work boyfriend; her two children; one grandchild; and her financially imprudent parents). Yet there are also the moving stories Thóra uncovers of families with disabled children, their sacrifices and their attempts to make the lives of society’s most vulnerable members a little better.
Unusual material for a mystery, but Sigurdardóttir handles it deftly through Thóra, who is as compassionate as she is intelligent and dogged.