Book review: Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

17 04 2017

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.

Book review: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrímur Helgason

29 03 2017

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic novelist, artist, and translator who writes in Icelandic and English. Two of his novels have been made into movies, and his artwork has been exhibited in Paris, Boston, and New York as well as in his native Reykjavík.


The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (2008, written in English and subsequently translated by Hallgrímur into Icelandic) starts with ‘Toxic’ (Tomislav Bokšić)—a seasoned Croatian ex-soldier who for many years has been making a living ending other people’s across the US—on the run. Toxic’s latest hit (number 67) has been a success, but he’s been let down by his intel: the target was an operative of the FBI, and the Feds are hot on his trail. Looking to fly out of New York, he’s forced to adopt another alias, which he effects by strangling a second-string televangelist, Father David Friendly, in a restroom stall. Friendly has—had—a ticket to Reykjavík, and so Toxic’s impromptu bolthole turns out to be an Icelandic one. As long as he can pull off his impersonation of a born-again preacher, he’ll be just fine …

Hitman’s Guide is a bit of a misnomer, since housecleaning features only tangentially within the story. And it isn’t really a crime novel in the standard sense, though various felonies are certainly committed during the course of the book; and one always suspects Toxic’s A-Croatian-Yankee-in-King-Olaf’s-Court shtick is ultimately going to derail his efforts towards keeping the lowest possible profile beneath the rather threadbare guise of the deceased Father Friendly. For the most part, it’s a black-comedy rite-of-passage which focusses on the peculiarities of Icelandic culture—the small-town feel of the nation’s capital, the inexplicable shortage of weaponry, the unprepossessing climate—as viewed by an outsider. Hallgrímur has a lot of fun with Icelandic names, which are presented as Toxic (‘Friendly’) hears them (‘Sickreader’, ‘Gunholder’, ‘Torture’, ‘Guard the Beer’ …). The book aims, in its portrayal of Iceland, at a blend of affection and irreverence, and it generally succeeds. I wasn’t always convinced by the comparative ease of Toxic’s redemption, and there is a bit of a slump around the seventh-inning stretch mark, where the story does meander for a couple of chapters, but Toxic’s pottymouthed world-weary streetwisdom retains a certain charm throughout; and the tale starts well, it ends appropriately, and there’s a good deal of acerbic situational humour within.

Book review(s): two Icelandic murder mysteries

11 07 2016

More Scandinavian crime fiction, this time from a couple of well-established Icelandic writers. Deaths at sea feature in both books: two boats, no survivors. But how did it happen?


Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a civil engineer, has written almost a dozen crime novels to date, featuring the Reykjavík lawyer Þóra (Thóra) Guðmundsdóttir as principal protagonist and investigator. In The Silence of the Sea (Brakið, 2011, translated by Victoria Cribb), Thóra is hired by Margeir and Sigridur to investigate the deaths of their bank-employee son Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin daughters Arna and Bylgja, who were four of the seven people on board the repossessed luxury yacht Lady K when it set sail from Lisbon with an all-Icelandic crew. When the boat arrives in Reykjavík’s harbour with nobody on board, it’s obvious that something untoward has happened; but is it some kind of elaborate scam, or has something more sinister occurred? Margeir and Sigridur hope to use the younger couple’s generous life-insurance policies so as to provide for their only surviving granddaughter, toddler Sigga Dögg, who was left in their care while her parents and sisters went on their portuguese holiday. But with no bodies, no witnesses, and no missing lifeboats, Thóra’s task of proving both the deaths and the innocence of Ægir and Lára appears intractable. And when the first body gets washed up, the mystery only deepens …

Yrsa unveils the story in split-screen: alternating chapters give us Thóra’s efforts to make traction with the case, and Ægir’s efforts to keep his family safe on the doomed voyage. This, I have to say, is a nasty trick, and highly effective: we’re forced to empathise with Ægir and his family much more than would have been the case if, in typical crime-fiction fashion, they’d simply turned up dead at the start of the book. (And it’s clear from quite early on that something very sinister has occurred—but who is responsible? Is it the Lady K‘s grizzled captain Thráinn, or one of the other crewmembers Halli or Loftur? Or is there some hint in Ægir’s past that he’s not the honest, upstanding bank employee he appears to be? And how does the fate of the boat’s occupants connect with the disappearance of the former owner’s gold-digger wife Karítas and her personal assistant?)

There are several passages of highly unnerving writing in this one, as Yrsa places the shipboard family in a sequence of fiendishly-wrought (and wrackingly atmospheric) predicaments, to the extent that the Thóra-centred chapters act almost as a welcome respite. And the complicated mesh of partial (and often misdirecting) clues serves more to underscore the family’s looming peril than to allow us to beat Thóra to a solution to the mystery. This is a seriously spooky, frighteningly effective crime novel.


Arnaldur Indriðason is a former journalist whose ‘Detective Erlendur’ series now extends to over a dozen books. In Strange Shores (Furðustrandir, 2010, again translated by Victoria Cribb), the detective is teasing out the ghosts of his boyhood home: the disappearance of his younger brother Bergur, in a snowstorm, when Erlendur was ten; and the analogous vanishing, decades earlier, of a young woman Matthildur, a year before the death of her husband Jakob in a boating tragedy. But there are few people amongst the small settlements of eastern Iceland old enough to still remember the events surrounding Matthildur’s apparent death, and fewer still willing to rake over the past’s old coals with an inquisitive and persistent policeman. Besides, there’s no official police interest in either matter, so what can Erlendur possibly hope to achieve through his darkly nostalgic meddling? But when people—first the farmer Bóas, then Matthildur’s younger sister Hrund, then Jakob’s former friend and workmate Ezra—reveal what they know of the incident, a disturbing story starts to emerge …

This is a moody, often bleak story of which I’m still not sure what to make. Erlendur’s role in the book is a rather unusual one (the policeman as amateur sleuth) and one which I didn’t totally buy: the lengths to which he’s prepared to go to uncover the past’s secrets, more out of a curious compulsion than a genuine thirst for justice, are really quite extraordinary … but then I don’t have a strong sense of Erlendur’s character in other circumstances, such as would have been the case if I’d commenced with book 1 rather than, I think, book 9 in the sequence.

Strange Shores is elegantly written, in clean prose and with an assured, unhurried pace. I enjoyed the reading of it, but I suspect it wasn’t the most suitable Detective Erlendur novel with which to start. Still, it’s an impressively subtle piece of detection, and makes effective use of a deliberately-sparse palette to paint a starkly grim crime.