The 2015 Petrona Award: a minority opinion

Posted: June 14, 2015 in Book Awards, Iceland

A luxury yacht arrives in Reykjavik harbour with nobody on board. What has happened to the crew, and to the family who were on board when it left Lisbon?

TPA2015SThora Gudmundsdottir is hired by the young father’s parents to investigate, and is soon drawn deeper into the mystery. What should she make of the rumours saying that the vessel was cursed, especially given that when she boards the yacht she thinks she sees one of the missing twins? Where is Karitas, the glamorous young wife of the yacht’s former owner? And whose is the body that has washed up further along the shore? [taken from the Amazon introduction]

Kathy commented on the 20 May:

I’d like to read an explanation of why this book [The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir] was chosen. I say this as a fan of Yrsa’s series.
But you gave a compelling argument for The Hummingbird and another blogger preferred Hunting Dogs. So I’d like to see why this book was chosen, in particular, i.e. atmosphere, plot, characters, etc.

I finished reading The Silence of the Sea yesterday, and I would like to ask the judges that same question.


The story is told in two timeframes with Thora’s investigation trying to prove that the family on the yacht are dead so that the parents and surviving daughter can claim the very large life insurance policies, interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to the voyage from Lisbon to Icelandic waters. It is perhaps a measure of the success of the story that the author drew me into her world so much that I was shocked, and very upset by the ending. I did not enjoy reading the book, but then I don’t think it was a story the reader was supposed to enjoy.

As I read I had hoped that we were not heading for one of those dark Nordic conclusions that leaves me emotionally drained, and searching for a Reginald Hill, or even a Massimo Carlotto for light relief. 

The ending perhaps even crossed the line from horror to horrid. Maybe that says more about my fragile emotional state than it does about the book. Also I cannot believe that any police force in the world would treat a yacht arriving in port, without the seven people meant to be on board, in such a lax manner. Perhaps in the numerous lengthy flashbacks to life on the voyage I found the actions of Aegir, the father, unbelievably stupid. Perhaps I am just an old curmudgeon, who can’t cope with miserable endings. 

In the books I read I am looking for the following features; a good plot, teasing subplots, believable interesting characters, an easy to read style, originality, a few red herrings, new locations, telling social commentary, even a little humour, and some empathy with the reader.

In the case of the Petrona Award winner I feel it should also be a book that the late Maxine Clarke would have enjoyed, a difficult judgement to make unless you knew her very well.

I am going to quote one of the judges, in her own review of the book.

“I found the book to be both compelling and shocking and was, ultimately, glad to reach the end.”

I totally agree. Frankly, even if you loved the rest of the book the ending was so shocking, that it would have disqualified it in my mind from receiving the award. 

There were at least three much more readable books suitable for the general reader on the shortlist than The Silence of the Sea, and my choice would have been The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto.      

  1. Philip Amos says:

    I had an objection to the shortlist to begin with, so while yours may be a minority opinion (it may not — who knows?), it’s not a sole dissenting voice. What struck me was that Asa Larsson’s Second Deadly Sin was not listed. Maxine and I had in common a particular liking for Larsson’s works, regarding her as one of the very finest Scandinavian crime writers: and more to point, finer than certain writers who consistently receive far more attention, let alone acclaim, for no good reason she or I could discern. It was and is, of course, easy to discern the bad reasons, but I won’t delve into that now. I should have done so back when one blogger, not in the U.K., seemed to turn promoting Stieg Larsson into a full-time occupation, and I did not think he was doing it solely out of love and conviction. But the real problem is not over-promotion of certain authors; rather it is its corollary — the consequent almost total ignoring of writers as fine and often finer. Those authors suffer, but so do readers, for if they don’t even know these writers exist, let alone the excellence of their work, much pleasure is denied them. Asa Larsson is one such, though she has not been eclipsed in the way that, say, Karin Alvtegen has. Reg Hill never got his due, but mention Phil Rickman and you’ll likely get blank looks. There are a lot of Larssons and Hills, but even more Alvtegens and Rickmans. I’d like to think asking readers to nominate writers who fall into this category would be productive, but experience of polls in this field tells us that we’d wind up with a load of people naming favourite writers, which are not the same thing, and always include not a few books about amateur detectives who are expert cooks/knitters, with recipes or patterns included at the end of each chapter. We’ve gone that route too many times already. Back to the start of this, I am of the firm opinion that Second Deadly Sin should at least have been on the shortlist. I must suspect that Maxine would have rooted for it to win, but equally sure she would not have reviewed Yrsa’s work with any enthusiasm. She is an excellent writer, but there is too much ‘Flavour of the Year’ about this choice. I like her work greatly, but this one I had trouble with from the first page. I’m not, of course, suggesting that the judges choose what they think Maxine would have liked. They could not know unless they knew Maxine and/or Petrona. But I would like the criteria upon which they base their choice clearly stated. And so, as the U.S. Supreme Court would put it, “Norman, Kathy and Philip dissented”.

  2. Norman Price says:

    Thanks for your much appreciated comments Philip.

    I did pick The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson on my personal shortlist back on 24 March so we can agree that she is a neglected writer in the UK. Although Second Deadly Sin won The Best Swedish Crime Novel Award (Bästa svenska kriminalroman) in 2012.
    I have never read Phil Rickman, but agree that Karin Alvtegen’s books are superb. Missing which won the Nordic Glass Key in 2001 features the character of Sibylla Forsenstrom, who might be considered an earlier version of Lisbeth Salander.

    I am going to look up Rickman now. Best wishes Norman

  3. LauraR says:

    I haven’t read a page of Silence of the Sea so it would be unfair of me to comment on it at all, but you raise some excellent points Philip. Strangely enough I was only thinking in the last week or two about Karin Alvetegen and how little attention her books currently attract in the UK. Norman – I have read several Rickman books. They are very atmospheric re:Welsh border country, and have a bit of a cross over into supernatural/horror. In many ways the first Merrily Rickman series book, The Wine Of Angels, is the most frightening in parts, so may not be the best one to start with.

  4. icewineanne says:

    Not a fan of supernatural horror, so I will pass on Phil Rickman. However, I do love the books of Karin Alvtegen & have recommended her writing to my bookclub. Asa Larsson is another author who I enjoy & follow.

  5. Interesting post and comments Norman. I think I might offer my own dissenting opinion too later this week – I have only just finished reading them all and while I enjoyed Silence of the Sea more than you I don’t think it was the best of the six. My personal favourite was probably The Hunting Dogs and only by the slimmest of margins but if we’re talking books that Maxine would have liked most then I agree that The Hummingbird is the one.

  6. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette, I will look forward to your reading your opinion.
    I am very pleased that you agree that Maxine’s choice would have been The Hummingbird.
    I sometimes read through the dozens of emails Maxine and I exchanged during the period 2011-2012. She was a very special person.

    I also rated The Hunting Dogs very highly, but for me The Hummingbird was exceptional for a debut novel.

    “The Hunting Dogs explores the relationship between father and daughter, the media’s responsibility in dealing with abduction cases, and the stress placed on the detectives in such cases. It also raises issues about the question of how a system of law that is balanced heavily in favour of perpetrators and their human rights as opposed to those of their victims can function in a very violent world. As a retired policeman once said to me “we can’t interrogate people anymore we have to bore them into a confession”.

    The Hunting Dogs has to be a strong contender for the International Dagger and Petrona Awards next year.”

  7. Kathy D. says:

    Wow! Norman, you really dissected “The Silence of the Sea.” I haven’t read it yet, but was trying to figure out what I should read of the nominated books, and I wasn’t persuaded. (Since my library
    is so remiss in buying global fiction, if I have to buy a book it has to be worth it.)

    One impression I got was that this book worked as a series entry and a stand-alone. But is this sufficient to win an award when there are so many excellent books on the list? And what you say about the ending being horrible turns me off. (Of course, I found this in Asa Larsson’s books, too, when I felt like I needed a spell at a vacation home or a support group after completing them when
    the protagonist was brutalized.)

    Your post and this one convinces to put down hard cash and buy “The Hummingbird,” as I like women detectives as protagonists and if I learn about Finnish life, fine. And later on, I may read “The Hunting Dogs.”

    Frankly, I’ve been enjoying some British crime fiction by a new, but excellent writer, Eva Dolan. Her book, “Long Way Home” has interesting characters (Serbian and Portuguese police detectives, one man, one woman), plot and social issues. Plus wit. I just bought her second book.

    And I sat and rested with my tea and treats while reading Sarah Ward’s “In Bitter Chill.” It was what I needed to read then. I required a few days to just read and tune out, and was very satisfied after I turned the last page. I hope she writes several more books which I’ll gladly read.

  8. Kathy D. says:

    Upon your recommendation, I just read The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson. A very good read, interesting, unputdownable. However, tough on dog lovers. Was annoyed by the unnecessary use of a racist word twice by a despicable character, granted, but also by the two showings of anti-Semitism. Was that necessary about Freud in 1914 or about the Jewish lawyer?

    Maybe this is a trend that publishers want — more bigotry? I haven’t seen it in Larsson’s earlier books. But maybe because some Nordic novels have racist, misogynistic male police officers, then other authors think they have to follow suit. I would rather not see that. But publishers or authors may think the books need spicing up like that. Groan.

  9. […] year for the first time I totally disagreed with the judges on their choice of a winner. I think that one important criteria for the award should be that the book that wins should be one […]

  10. You’ll be pleased to know that Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, sequel to The Hummingbird, has made the shortlist. A fabulous read that ticks all the key boxes, I think!

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