A young child discovers a small object while out playing and gives it to his toddler brother. A medical student who is a picking up his brother at the child's birthday party sees the toddler chewing on the object and recognizes it as part of a human skeleton. This sets off the story.
Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik police department is called on and he and his team dig around the area where the child found the bone. They discover a skeleton buried in a rather shallow grave. Archeologists are called upon to carefully unearth the skeleton, which had been buried for many years.
Elrendur must eliminate all possible scenarios. It could be the skeleton of someone who froze to death, something that happens in Iceland. Or perhaps it is one of the American or British servicemen stationed in Iceland during WWII.
Another story emerges of a family that occupied a summer chalet near the area. It's a tale of horrific domestic abuse. The threads of several stories entwine seamlessly and eventually the identity of the skeleton is revealed.
Along with the investigation the inspector's own personal story is revealed. The book is about relationships and how the events of the past impress themselves on what happens later on in life.