Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, lecturer, and former TV reporter who has performed the translation of much of the Agatha Christie canon into Icelandic, whose ‘Dark Iceland’ crime novels, set in the small northern Icelandic township of Siglufjörður and featuring the rookie policeman Ari Thór Arason, a Reykjavík native newly posted to the insular town’s police force, have been gaining international attention and critical acclaim over the past couple of years.
Snowblind (Snjóblinda, 2010, translated by Quentin Bates) is Ragnar’s debut novel, and opens with the recruitment of Ari Thór, a trainee policeman, by Tómas, the senior officer in Siglufjörður, a town now past its heyday as a fishing port. Ari Thór, keen to get an offer of employment after several setbacks, travels north to the town, against the wishes of his girlfriend Kristín, who stays behind to complete her own studies. Ari Thór is assured by Tómas that the criminal element in Siglufjörður is almost nonexistent, with the daily police duties much more involved with maintaining public order and safety than with the investigation of felonies. For a couple of months, this—and an apparently town-wide obsession with knowing everybody else’s business—does indeed seem to be Siglufjörður’s defining characteristic. But when the town’s most famous citizen, elderly novelist and Dramatic Society chairman Hrólfur Kristjánsson, suffers a fatal fall down a flight of stairs at a rehearsal for the Society’s latest play, followed the next week by a vicious knife attack on Linda, the wife of the play’s leading man Karl, it begins to appear to Ari Thór that the town’s inhabitants are hiding a number of secrets.
I’m not yet sure how central is the sense of geographic isolation as a feature of Icelandic crime fiction, but certainly Ragnar’s Siglufjörður seems very distant from anywhere else—it’s cut off for several days, at one point, by an avalanche which has blocked the only road out, something that Tómas (dubiously) reassures Ari Thór happens every winter—in a sense that mirrors the powerfully bleak emptiness of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores, and that seems to be absent from most continental Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read (Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal is a recent exception). Though the landscape definitely has the status of a character in its own right, the (human) characters are all clearly drawn and leave the reader progressively more deeply puzzled about the crimes that Ari Thór is investigating. There’s an impressive sense of life continuing behind and beyond the pages of the novel: every character (and there are enough of them, almost all with unfamiliar names like Ugla, Leifur, Pálmi, Úlfur, and Hlynur, that I felt the lack of an explicit dramatis personae) has a detailed and often tragic backstory which is gradually teased out. The mystery is well-buried and satisfying, and the ending is sufficiently bittersweet as to motivate the reader to want to know what happens next …
If I have a gripe, it’s that the paperback edition I read (which has excellent design values) suffers from several typographic errors, one of which is potentially serious enough to throw an alert reader out of the story. (Chapters are headed with the appropriate date, which is useful enough, except that two consecutive chapters both identified as occurring on Sunday 11th January 2009 detail events which could not both have occurred on that day.) But other than this, Snowblind is a powerful, contained, and highly impressive debut.