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: 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: 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: 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.