The Legacy (Children’s House 1) by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

A great start…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When a horrific murder is carried out, there’s only one witness, 7-year-old Margrét, but she’s too shocked to tell her tale. So it’s decided to ask the Children’s House to help out – a place that specialises in helping traumatised children. Meantime the police are searching through the murder victim’s background to try to find any reason for her murder, but Elísa seems to have been normal in every possible way: happy marriage, a group of long-time friends, good at her job, and generally popular. And the next victim – because of course there’s a next one – seems equally unlikely. Margrét’s testimony seems to be the only hope…

This is the beginning of a new series for Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, based around Freyja, the psychologist in charge of the Children’s House, and Huldar, the detective in charge of the case. I’m not sure if both will appear in future books or just Freya, but they definitely share the billing in this one. The book is written in third person, past tense throughout. The crime seems to have its roots in the past but we learn about it through events in the present. Personally, I’m thrilled to see a crime book returning to this more traditional format of storytelling – the single time period flows more naturally than chopping backwards and forwards, the third person allows the author to range more widely across the characters without being restricted by what a first person narrator can know, and the past tense is so much more natural and appropriate that I really can’t understand why there’s such an insistence on using present tense. (I have never once seen anyone complain about a book being written in the past tense, have you?) I’m hoping maybe trends are finally shifting again…

As often happens with the first of a series, this one starts off pretty slowly, with much filling in of the backgrounds of the main characters – perhaps a little too much. There are places where it drags a bit and I found myself wishing that the plot would move along a little faster. However, I like both Freyja and Huldar as lead characters. Neither of them are perfect, but nor are they angst-ridden weirdos or drunks. They are both professionals who take their jobs seriously. Freyja clearly cares deeply about the children who pass through her care, but she’s professional enough not to get too emotionally involved to do her job well. This is Huldar’s first time in charge of an investigation, and we see him do his best to keep his team working well together, even though they get progressively more snappy with each other as the pressure mounts and time passes with no real leads appearing.

My one real complaint is that the murders are particularly horrific, and though in fact Sigurdardóttir only lingers over the detail of the first one, she writes so effectively that I found the images that she was putting in my head were too graphic for me, and unnecessarily so. The story is strong enough to stand without the gruesomeness, so that it felt pretty gratuitous to me.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

The plotting, however, is great! Twisty, credible (apart from the murder methods), and full of some lovely misdirection – nope, I didn’t get there until it was revealed at the end, but on looking back, the clues are all there, so no ‘cheating’. It is a whodunit to a degree, but it’s actually more about the why of the crime – once the motive is clear, so is the culprit. We see events unfold from various perspectives – Freyja and Huldar, of course, but also through the victims’ eyes, as baffled as we are as to why this is happening to them. And then there’s Karl, a young student and radio ham who has come across a strange station emitting strings of numbers that somehow seem to be connected to both him and the victims. The sections relating to Karl provide both the central mystery and some great characterisation of him and his friends, as they find themselves drawn into something they don’t understand.

Sigurdardóttir’s writing is as excellent as always, and the translation by Victoria Cribb is first class – had I not known it was a translation, I would have assumed it was written in English. The rather slow start and the too graphic murders meant that for most of the read it was heading for a solid four stars from me, but the strength of the last hundred pages or so lifted it – I found myself totally absorbed and the skill of the lead-up to the eventual solution both satisfied and impressed me. So I’m going with 4½, and will certainly be looking out for the next in what I hope will turn out to be a fine series, especially if Sigurdardóttir can rein in her imagination just a little on the gruesome front…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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28 thoughts on “The Legacy (Children’s House 1) by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

  1. This sounds really good. I can probably stomach the gruesome bits, although like you I don’t appreciate unnecessary gore. It sounds so clever! Definitely on my list 🙂

    • Yeah, I can take the gruesomeness, but I’d rather not have to, especially when it’s hardly ever really necessary. But otherwise, I think you’d like this – she’s an excellent plotter!

  2. I couldn’t agree more about the third person, past-tense narrative and single time frame. Relieved to hear this is a good example of that. Sometimes I think that all the ‘jazzing up’ is to distract from a less solid storyline…

    • I think you have a point! I also think it must be harder too, though – especially the first person, since you really have to create a voice for that. I don’t know how often I’ve read books switching from one FP narrator to another, and found their voices indistinguishable…

  3. So glad you enjoyed this, FIctionFan. I’ve been hearing that it’s an excellent story, and I”m glad to hear it, as I am a fan of her work. I have to admit, I’m not too sure about that graphic violence thing. It’s just not for me. But I would like to read it and see what this series will be like.

    • Her plotting and characterisation are excellent in this one, Margot, so while I’d have preferred rather less gruesome murders, I wouldn’t want it to put you off. Just shut your eyes while you’re reading those bits… 😉

  4. So many good crime novel reviews lately! As usual, I am resolved to read more crime fiction, but then I’m listening to yet another Miss Marple novel and think to myself how “nice” it is that the killer could get the deed done with just one single bullet. 🙂

    • Ah, yes, good old Agatha never needed to rely on gore! Even her poisonings simply involved the victim slipping away peacefully in their sleep! I love listening to the Christie books – something about the way they’re written makes them work really well on audio – I never find myself getting lost or losing attention the way I often do with other audiobooks.

  5. I’m glad you mentioned that about the graphic murders…I don’t really want those images in my head! I may start with The Undesired which I’ve got sitting at home, I’m really curious to try this author.

    • Yes, I could have lived without those murders but don’t let it put you off the book completely. I enjoyed The Undesired and I suspect you will too, but for me this one is actually a better book, despite the gruesomeness! 🙂

  6. Thank you for highlighting that the murder is gruesome, so I know what to avoid. I think the translator worked on the later Reykjavik Murder Mysteries so she’s obviously good at her job!

    • Yes, I can’t quite see the point of making the murders so gruesome since I’m sure that will repel more readers than it attracts. The translation really is excellent – no clunkiness whatsoever! Just close your eyes at the gory bits… 😉

    • Ooh, that first murder really freaked me out – she’s such a great writer I could visualise it all too easily! But I still loved the book, and am glad to see it’s the first in a new series…

    • Hmm… it could maybe have been a bit shorter, but mostly it was developing the characters for future books, which I often find makes the first in a series kinda draggy – but I suppose it has to be done. Hopefully future books will be able to concentrate more on the story now the characters have been established though…

  7. I hadn’t really thought about all the present tense/shifting back and forth novels but you’re right, it’s certainly a trend of the last few years, especially in thrillers! I can’t think of a past tense novel where that aspect annoyed me. I am not a fan of gruesome, so I will probably not add this to the list (she says with relief!), but I enjoyed your review!

    • Thank you! I get so fed up with trends in writing, so I’m a bit fixated the whole past/present thing these days, and on first person present tense narratives – they always seem so false to me, whereas past tense feels so natural. It’s a pity about the gruesome murders in this one, because it’s excellent otherwise, but I can see why that would put people off – it would have put me off if I’d know in advance, to be honest… 🙂

  8. Yrsa Sigurdardóttir has been on my radar for quite some time. After reading your review I’m even more anxious to give her novels a try.

    • I’ve enjoyed several of her books now. Quite often there’s a slight supernatural aspect which doesn’t work so well for me. But this series doesn’t have that aspect, so I think it’d be a great one to try her style…

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