Book review: Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson

16 11 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, university lecturer, TV journalist and crime fiction writer with eight books to his name, five of which (the ‘Dark Iceland’ series featuring young police officer Ari Thór Arason) have been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed two of these: Snowblind and Nightblind.

Whiteout

Whiteout (Andköf, 2013, translated by Quentin Bates) is the fourth of the Ari Thór novels (albeit presented in English translation only after the fifth novel, Nightblind). It starts with the fatal cliffside fall of Ásta, a young woman whose mother Seiunn and younger sister Tinna also perished, a couple of decades earlier, at the same Kálfshamarvík cliff. It’s a few days before Christmas; the rocks on the point are slippery; there’s nothing intrinsically suspicious about Ásta’s death, in isolation. But the family history of near-identical tragedies leads the police to believe an investigation is warranted, and Ari Thór’s erstwhile commanding officer Tómas is despatched from Reykjavík to head up the investigation. Faced with personnel shortages in the lead-up to the holidays, Tómas calls on Ari Thór to assist him. The timing’s doubly poor for Ari Thór: not only does the investigation impinge on his upcoming holidays, but he and girlfriend Kristín are imminently expecting their first child. And hopes of a rapid resolution to the case are dashed when clear traces of foul play are unearthed …

There’s a sparseness at the core of Whiteout which is, I think, quintessentially Icelandic. (It is, at least in tone, strongly reminiscent of the work of fellow Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason, whose writing often has a similar ‘pared-back’ feel to it.) The setting is isolated and somewhat bleak, the suspect list is short, comprising only elderly brother and sister Óskar and Thóra, wealthy landowner and businessman Reynir, and neighbouring farmer Arnór, the detectives’ methods of inquiry fairly rudimentary. It’s also sufficiently slow that it takes a good long time to get its hooks into the reader. But Jónasson is skilled at evoking personality in characters who are often intrinsically very taciturn and insular, and the setup of three similar deaths, decades apart, becomes steadily more intriguing as the story progresses and as various family skeletons are unearthed. All up, it’s another understated but effective procedural in a very impressive and stylish series.

 

 

 

 

 

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Book review: Snare, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir

15 10 2017

Lilja Sigurðardóttir is an Icelandic crime novelist and playwright. (Note that the ‘Sigurðardóttir’ patronymic doesn’t imply any genealogical connection with fellow Icelandic crime novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: it merely means their fathers had the same first name.) Of Lilja’s five novels to date, only one, Snare (the first volume, it seems, of her ‘Reykjavík Noir’ trilogy) has yet been translated into English.

Snare

Snare (Gildran, 2015, translated by Quentin Bates) opens with drug courier Sonja’s preparations for a flight from Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport to Keflavík in Iceland. Sonja’s done this—smuggled a kilo of cocaine—several times before: her approach to the task is professional, her appearance carefully groomed to ensure she doesn’t raise any flags with the customs officials. But it’s hardly her first choice of career; it’s something she’s taken on so as to be able to establish herself financially and, hopefully, to win sole custody of her young son Tómas following a bitter divorce triggered by her affair with Agla, a woman who used to hold an important position at the same bank that employed Adam, Sonja’s ex-husband.

Sonja, determined to wrest back control of her life and to escape the ‘snare’ of drug trafficking, is adamant that she will not be played. She’s being played. Agla, too, squeezed between the mistrust of former colleagues and a financial prosecutor looking for culprits in the aftermath of Iceland’s currency crisis, is also being played. The fraught, brittle, somehow enduring relationship between the two women—which, I suppose, I didn’t always find convincing in its mercuriality, though both characters are endearingly sympathetic—is as much at the novel’s heart as their separate and very different predicaments: while the reader’s interest is initially caught up in the desperation of Sonja’s plight, it becomes clear that there’s more at stake for several of the people around her. Looming as Sonja’s nemesis is the retirement-age customs inspector Bragi, who twigs that there’s something suspect about this impeccably-dressed frequent traveller; Agla’s fate is in the hands of the humourless Inspector Jón and his associate Maria, who show a tireless determination to root out her secrets. The characterisation is efficient, the tension well-maintained, the book’s diversions—some ominously inevitable, some mischieviously unexpected—effectively handled, and the descriptions of both drug-trafficking and banking cultures appear well-enough researched to be distinctly disquieting. This is a propulsive and rewarding introduction to Lilja’s writing, of which I hope we’ll see more in English.





Book review: Nightblind, by Ragnar Jónasson

12 10 2017

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic lawyer, TV reporter, translator and crime novelist best known for his ‘Dark Iceland’ series featuring policeman Ari Thór Arason, of which four books are now available in English translation (though not in their chronological or series order). I’ve reviewed the first of the English-translated novels, Snowblind, here.

NightBlind

Nightblind (Náttblinda, 2015, translated by Quentin Bates), is nominally the fifth in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series and is set five years after the events of Snowblind. It opens with the gunning down of Ari Thór’s commanding officer Herjólfur late on a cold autumn night, in a deserted house on Siglufjördur’s outskirts. Ari Thór, who finds himself playing second fiddle to his previous commanding officer, Tómas, dispatched from Reykjavík to lead the investigation. The police soon find themselves working at cross purposes to the town’s new mayor, Gunnar, and his deputy and close friend Elín, whose accounts of their actions at the time of the shooting are unsatisfactory. But a motive for the murder, and it seems as though everyone in the small coastal town harbours a secret of some sort.

Ragnar’s writing is crisp and evocative, the town’s classically-nordic winter cold and gloom is very atmospheric, and the characterisation reveals just enough of the townspeople’s foibles to keep the reader guessing as to how it will pay out. My only real criticism of the book is that the interwoven diary entries—which, though relevant to the story, are perhaps somewhat too frequent in what is a fairly slim novel—do tend to pull the reader repeatedly out of the story. Otherwise, Ragnar does an excellent job of balancing the crime and the backgrounding social commentary, playing off the tension against the often-brittle domesticity of his characters’ lives, and the greyscale morality—nothing is black and white, nobody’s motives are pure—adds texture and complexity to what is, at heart, a reasonably simple tale.





Book review: The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson

31 07 2017

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson is an Icelandic crime fiction writer and public roads administrator. He has written six novels to date, four of which have been translated into English, and he has twice been the Icelandic nominee for the Scandinavia-wide Glass Key Award for crime fiction.

TheFlateyEnigma

(As indicated by the above image, I listened to this one as an audiobook. I’m not sure the story was ideally suited to the audiobook format—each chapter is structured in two parts, with the nature of the second, shorter part not properly becoming clear until late in the book; and there are a number of places where the text features 39-character-long strings of individual letters, more-or-less meaningless in audio but of reasonable relevance to the story—but the audiobook’s gimmick of using a male narrator for the first part of each chapter and a female narrator for the second part worked well enough, even if it was quite confusing for the first couple of chapters.)

The Flatey Enigma (Flateyjargáta, 2003, translated by Brian Fitzgibbon) starts with the discovery in spring 1960, by a family of seal-hunters from the small West Icelandic island of Flatey (pronounced Flah-tay), of the badly-decomposed body of a man on the smaller uninhabited island of Ketilsey. Kjartan, an inexperienced assistant to the District Magistrate, is initially sent to Flatey to investigate the death, but by the time the body is identified as that of a Danish professor who had been visiting Flatey the previous year, it has become apparent that none of the islanders is able to explain how and why the professor made his way to Ketilsey and met his death. Suspicion grows that the death is related to the academic’s researches into the (genuine) medieval Book of Flatey, for which the vellum original is held in Copenhagen and a modern copy is stored in the island’s small library. The Flatey copy of the text also contains the only known copy of the (fictitious) Flatey Enigma, a forty-question puzzle which relates to the content of the Book and which carries a curse applicable to anyone who attempts to transcribe it or to remove it from the library, and it appears the professor had indeed attempted this.

The book is slow to unfold and rather gruesomely authentic, not so much for the descriptions of contemporary murder (which are detailed enough) but for the Book of Flatey extracts summarised in several of the latter portions of chapters: if you were ever wondering how the Norse acquired such a bloodthirsty reputation, the tales from the Book of Flatey should provide an answer, with beheadings, eviscerations and sundry mutilations galore … and then there’s the ritualistic slaying method described as the ‘Blood Eagle’. The islanders’ cuisine, too, also sounds rather grim, revolving around boiled seal meat, fermented shark, and various forms of cooked seabird (puffin appears to feature heavily on this score). Behind all of this, the story presented is sufficiently intriguing to retain interest, though it is sometimes difficult to tell the various characters apart: while they are given distinct personalities, they are not always as sharply delineated as one might wish.

The resolution of the several mysteries within the book is satisfying, but there’s a distinct sense in which the crime plays second fiddle to the gritty detail of the story’s setting.





Book review: The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

20 05 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is an Icelandic crime fiction writer best known for his novels featuring the detective Erlendur. I’ve previously reviewed one of those, Strange Shores, here.

TheShadowDistrict

The Shadow District (Skuggasund, 2013, translated by Victoria Cribb) is subtitled ‘A Reykjavík Wartime Mystery’. It’s not an Erlendur novel: here, Arnaldur has introduced a new detective, Konrád, who has retired from active police work but apparently still feels compelled to pitch in from time to time. The novel staggers between two timelines: in the present day, Konrád is helping to investigate the suspicious death of Stephán, a reclusive nonagenarian, in his Reykjavík apartment, while seventy years earlier, during the wartime occupation of Iceland by the Allies, the crime under investigation is that of a young woman whose body is spotted by an Icelandic woman Ingiborg and her American GI boyfriend Frank. Hoping to solve the young woman’s murder in 1944 are Flóvent, a detective in Reykjavík’s then-fledgling CID, and Thorson, a Canadian of Icelandic ancestry on secondment to the US military police. There are, of course, connections between the cases …

I found myself wishing, in places, that the text was somewhat more visually descriptive: the author does not always take enough time, in my opinion, to place the reader in the setting. But against this, the depiction of human action and response is very clear, and the inner voices of the several principal characters are all eloquently recorded. For the most part, the book does a good job, too, of the crucial task of clarifying ‘who knew what when’, which is unavoidably fiddly given the long lapse between the two timelines and the loss of several protagonists, and much evidence, in the interim.

I’m loath to leap to unwarranted conclusions (well, okay, not that loath), but I cannot help but think that the only other novel by Arnaldur that I’ve read, Strange Shores, was in some senses a ‘dry run’ at this one: though the investigators are different, there’s the same concern of a modern-day detective for information regarding a long-buried wartime crime to which the only witnesses remaining alive are in nursing homes or otherwise ‘on borrowed time’. On eyeballing the synopses for his earlier Erlendur novels, it appears that this predilection for wartime cold cases is not completely all-consuming, but its recurrence (and, it would seem, its continuance in the next Konrád instalment, not yet available in English) indicates that the wartime years are something of a passion for the author. The far-distant setting of the young woman’s murder does give the story an eerie, elegiac sense; but Arnaldur’s prose, clean, gentle, and cold, would confer this quality regardless.





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

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.

TheHitmansGuideToHousecleaning

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.