Book review: The Darkness, by Ragnar Jónasson

26 03 2018

Ragnar Jónasson is an Icelandic crime fiction writer who has rapidly established a reputation for sharp, sparse, noirish crime novels through his five-book ‘Dark Iceland’ series that follows the exploits of Detective Ari Thór Arason. I’ve previously reviewed three of those novels.


The Darkness (Dimma, 2015, translated by Victoria Cribb) is the first volume in Ragnar’s ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy which features Detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavík CID. Hulda is on the cusp of retirement from the force, a circumstance that has been peremptorily brought forward by her superior officer Magnús. He wishes Hulda to take pre-retirement leave commencing immediately, for purposes of bringing more fresh blood into the department in her absence; Hulda, for whom the prospect of retirement holds no joy, wrings a concession out of him to remain on active duty for a further two weeks to investigate a cold case of her own choice. The case she’s chosen is that of Elena, a Russian asylum seeker found dead—possibly drowned, possibly bashed—on the rocks at Njardvík, the previous year. Elena’s death has been ruled a suicide, but Hulda can very quickly see that the original investigation, by Alexander—hardly one of the department’s best and brightest—has cut all manner of corners.

Hulda is a fallible, past-haunted, determined investigator, and as the novel’s anchor she emerges as a character of impressive solidity. The case she must try to unravel is sketched by Ragnar with an efficient, cold minimalism, as is his style. It’s surprising, on looking back on the novel, just how few moving parts it has, and yet it thrums with tension and intrigue, and retains an ability to surprise right to the final pages. I’m certainly anticipating the next instalment in the series.


Book review: Jar City, by Arnaldur Indriðason

24 12 2017

Arnaldur Indriðason is a prolific Icelandic crime fiction writer and a former journalist and film critic. His work, which has won several awards including the Glass Key and the Gold Dagger, has largely focussed on the investigations of the Reykjavík detective Erlendur, and all but the first two of those novels have been translated into English. I’ve previously reviewed his novels Strange Shores (the Erlendur series’ coda) and The Shadow District (the first in his ‘Reykjavík wartime mystery’ series).


Jar City (Mýrin, 2000, translated by Bernard Scudder) is the earliest of the Erlendur novels to have appeared in English, though two prior (untranslated) novels exist, as well as three more recent sequels, so it’s more properly considered as a mid-career offering (for the detective, if not for the author). It follows Erlendur’s investigations into the fatal bashing of an elderly delivery driver Holberg during what initially appears to be a simple home invasion or attempted burglary. When it later transpires that, decades previously, the deceased had been accused (though never charged) of sexual assault by a woman who subsequently committed suicide, Erlendur starts to suspect that Holberg’s death may be the result of something more sinister than just an interrupted break-in.

Arnaldur’s writing is spare and blunt, the tone throughout the book gloomy and grey. (It seems as though it never stops raining.) Erlendur, too, is a lugubrious type, somewhat harried, somewhat pugnacious—more or less the standard Scandicrime detective, I suppose, though the characteristic substance abuse is delegated to his adult daughter Eva Lind, a drug addict who is possibly the novel’s most strongly-drawn character. The writing, though generally effective, doesn’t always hit the notes that Arnaldur’s later work achieves: there are what seemed to me a couple of unsuccessfully comic touches, and it takes some time for the plot to properly bite in. (It should be noted, though, that Icelandic crime fiction has a tendency to unfold at a somewhat slow tempo, so the pacing in this one should probably be regarded as a feature rather than a bug.) There’s little in the way of histrionics, or forced tension, or artificial suspense; the story is carried principally through its rough-grained characterisation and through intelligent, apparently well-researched plotting. It’s refreshing to note, too, that there is one significant character—Marion Briem—whose gender throughout the book (and, I have a hunch, throughout the entire Erlendur series) is kept undisclosed, a situation the other characters are broadly accepting of, so it seems of a piece with the Scandinavian reputation for progressivity (even while some of the aspects of Icelandic society depicted do seem distinctly old-fashioned). And yes, the book’s enigmatic title does get explained during the latter stages; I’ll leave that as a matter for others to discover for themselves.

All up, this is a gritty, measured procedural that chills without recourse to ostentation.

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 (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 Ragnar 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.






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 (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 (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.


(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.


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.