Ashes to Dust By Yrsa Sigurdardottir, trans. Philip Roughton

Secrets of a painful past exhumed

Icelandic volcanic explosion provides a timely background for the latest fictional adventure of Thora Gudmundsdottir, a Reykjavik granny and lawyer. In 1973 one of the Westman Islands was buried under showers of red-hot ash and lava. The islanders were evacuated just in time, and now a survivor comes to Thora wanting to prevent a planned excavation of this Nordic Pompeii.

Not surprisingly, for in the basement of his former home are discovered human remains just as nasty as anything in Pompeii and a lot fresher: three bodies plus a spare head in a box. Thora is persuaded to leave Reykjavik for the islands to support her client, a spotty teenager at the time of the explosion but now possibly in line for a quadruple murder charge.

Fortunately, he is also the heir to a fishing-fleet fortune so is well placed to pay her fees, which are going to be considerable. There's an interesting possibility that the bodies are British, victims of the Cod War.

Thora takes her secretary, Bella, whose vampire make-up and urban-terrorist clothing make waves and lead to the collection of very useful gossip as the outsiders try to penetrate the secretive community of the islanders. The local plod, in the shape of Inspector Gudni, is especially dismissive of outside intervention.

Back in the city, a nurse dies in circumstances at first assessed as suicide, a judgement quickly reversed with some nasty medical discoveries: this bit is not recommended for reading at table. The nurse was doubling as an assistant at a rape centre in a local hospital, where she may have got involved with a ring of pornographers, but in her youth she was one of the evacuees from the stricken island. Into this knot is added another strand: an anorexic girl, a witness whose sensitivities must be handled with care, comes across a stray piece of vital evidence.

The chaos and panic caused by the 1973 eruption are vividly evoked in Yrsa Sigurdardottir's novel. The terrified populace struggles on board the fishing boats in the harbour, rescuing useless objects like standard lamps, forgetting precious photographs. The population of Pompeii must have behaved in much the same way.