“There’s something about a murder in a small community that’s disturbing, especially at a time like this-the middle of winter.”
Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snowblind is a perfect example of how a crime novel grants the reader an opportunity to worm a way into a foreign culture. Set during the Icelandic financial crisis, the book is the first in a series featuring rookie policeman Ari Thor. When the novel opens, twenty-five-year old Ari is living in Reykjavik with his girlfriend Kristin. Former theology student Ari turned to a career in the police and he’s on the last leg of his studies when he sends out job applications. This is a bad time to be seeking work, but then he gets a call from Tómas, the police chief in far-way Siglufjördur. Without consulting Kristin, who’s finishing up her medical studies, he takes the job, and leaves for this remote northern town.
The book contains two maps: one of Iceland and one of Siglufjördur. The first map shows just how remote Siglufjördur and goes a long way to explaining Kristin’s attitude towards Ari’s relocation. But Siglufjördur is an interesting town and a perfect setting for a series. Once the town flourished, but now is shrinking with the loss of the herring industry, yet while Reykjavik is in chaos, the economic crisis somehow bypasses Siglufjördur. I looked up photos of the town, and it really is spectacular in a postcard sort of way. Author Ragnar Jónasson’s relatives hail from the town, and because of its geographical isolation it must indeed be a unique place. The town is accessible by a long tunnel and windy mountain roads, and at one point in the novel, due to heavy snow fall, the town is completely cut off. The book explores this uniqueness through the town’s residents: people move there and never leave, retirees return, and some people go there to disconnect with the rest of the world.
He started the day with cereal, ice-cold milk and yesterday’s newspaper. He had started to get used to seeing the papers late, as the morning editions didn’t reach this far-flung fjord until at least midday. Not that it mattered. The rhythm of life was different here, time passed more slowly and there was less bustling hurry than in the city. The papers would be here when they were here.
Ari’s new job would seem on one hand to be a cushy deal. There’s relatively little crime (no one locks their doors) and he’s given a large house to live in. For the first few days, he’s bored–after all he trained for the police as he was looking for a job “with a little excitement to it.” Just as he’s thinking he’s made a horrible mistake moving to this peaceful town, a death occurs. Hrólfur, now in his 90s, the author of one of Iceland’s most famous books, falls and dies during a rehearsal at the local theatrical group. Tómas is certain it’s an accident, but Ari isn’t ready to jump to that conclusion. Then a woman is found injured in the snow. Could the two events be related?
The plot follows these two events and Ari’s investigation. As always in a series novel, the life of the series character comes under scrutiny, and in this case Ari finds himself torn between Kristin and Ugla, a young woman who’s moved to Siglufjördur to escape her past.
Snowblind is an extremely strong first entry in the series. Not only does the book contain a strong sense of place, the ups and downs of small town life, but elements of Icelandic culture are very subtly woven into the plot–traditional Christmas dinner is smoked pork, for example. At one point, Ari finds himself alone working on Xmas Eve. He takes Christmas ale, smoked pork wrapped in foil, a white candle and a new book to work his solo vigil at the police station.
The Icelandic tradition of reading a new book on Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of the morning, had been important in his family’s home.
What a great tradition.
I read some reviews that complained the book had the old cliché of the rookie policeman solving the crimes. While I understand where the complaint comes from, Snowblind is the launch of the new Dark Iceland series, and what better way to start than with a rookie? Plus it’s easy to accept Ari’s desire to ‘see’ crimes where his boss does not as Ari is beginning to think that he’s made a terrible mistake leaving Reykjavik behind. At one point during the plot, the author keeps Ari’s thoughts about one of the crimes (there are several) off the page, but the clues were there thrown out very subtly throughout the story. Plus we see Ari developing a professional persona that he hopes will work with the locals. There are a few loose ends to follow in book 2, and I’m looking forward to it. Marina and Crimeworm are enjoying the series too.
Translated by Quentin Bates