Investigating Officer Elma has only recently returned to her home town of Arkanes, after working in the city of Reykjavik. She has to hit the ground running when the body of a woman is discovered by two teenagers, hanging out in the old lighthouse. The dead woman is beautiful, with long dark hair and inscrutable dark eyes. Her identity is a mystery, and at first there are no clues as to whether she drowned, jumped from the lighthouse or was murdered. Elma and her new partner Saever must find out the truth about the mystery woman, while getting to know each other. However, investigating in the small town where she grew up isn’t easy. Elma has to work through preconceptions, local politics and allegiances; the potential suspects may have status in the community and be respected within her own family. She soon finds that despite everyone knowing each other, people still have deep, dark secrets to hide.
The story is told largely through Elma’s eyes, but with alternate, shorter chapters, following the writings of a little girl. The girl’s tale is heart rending to read, as she grows up in a grief stricken and chaotic household. Her mother is a drunk and the house is often full of random strangers. The author drops tiny little clues about the girl’s existence, rather than stark descriptions. As if she doesn’t want to shock, but instead draw the reader in slowly. She talks about sores on her fingers that are infected and green in places. Is this from biting them due to anxiety or something even more worrying? She’s lonely and has few friends or family who care about her. Everyone responds to her, because she’s a pretty girl, but no one bothers to look closer. As the book continued I felt like I was watching the development of a potentially borderline personality.
Elma has a mystery of her own that also unveils slowly. She had a significant relationship back in Reykjavik ,that ended before her return. Again, this is hinted at but not exposed. When Elma has dinner with her family, her Mum encourages her to talk about it, but Elma puts her face down on the table and begs her Mum to stop digging, she simply isn’t ready to face it yet. Her relationship with work partner Saever is a delectable slow burn. She’s attracted to him, but holds back – partly because of their work relationship, but there’s something else too, possibly linked to her previous relationship. It’s great to see this slow development and bodes well for this to become a series. We learn that Elma is dogged in her determination to solve a case. Her thorough investigation does clash with the people of this remote small town. It’s a place where people trust each other and individuals are in a position of authority for life. Residents believe they know each other well, but Elma is in a unique position to get underneath these facades. She’s local enough to be trusted, but separate enough to see people and situations objectively. She’s willing to ask the questions a local officer might avoid.
The central case goes right to the heart of this community and to a generation that tended not to interfere or ask questions. Where everyone might suspect something going wrong in a certain household, but no one would interfere or report in perhaps the same way we would now. I really savoured the slow, detailed storytelling and the atmosphere created by the author. Even the title sets us on edge; that idea of hearing a creak on the stairs in the dead of night is universally scary. When I imagined myself in the place of this little girl, I could feel the dread of knowing that person is on their way to my room. I felt that a harrowing subject, which could have been gratuitous, was handled with care and restraint. Instead we see the aftermath, the devastating effect on victims and also the ripple effect that spreads like a shockwave through the community. I recommend therapy to clients on the basis that trauma left unprocessed is never fully locked away, it still affects us daily and eventually works it’s way back to the surface. This applies to Elma’s investigation and her private life. The author cleverly waits till right at the end to let us into her secret, setting us up perfectly for a sequel. I can’t wait to read it.