Tag Archives: Icelandic crime fiction

Nightblind: Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is the second novel in the Dark Iceland series. Nightblind takes place about five years after the wonderfully atmospheric  Snowblind. The third book in the series is Blackout which apparently “picks up the story directly after the events of  Snowblind.” Glad there’s an explanation of the time line in the intro. At the end of Snowblind, we left our series character, rookie policeman Ari Thor up in far-way Siglufjördur. I looked up the town on the map, and it is spectacularly beautiful but so remote. It’s easy to see that if you moved there, you’d either love it or hate it. It’s the sort of place that you cannot easily replicate, but the weather is going to dictate your lifestyle.

Nightblind finds Ari still working in Siglufjördur, but now he has a new boss after his old one left and Ari’s bid for promotion was turned down. Ari is living with his girlfriend Kristin, now a doctor, and they have a child together, so at least that past of Ari’s life has resolved. Or has it?

Nightblind

The novel opens with the shotgun shooting of a Siglufjördur policeman, and then follows the investigation as Ari’s old boss, Tómas, returns to head the hunt for the killer. The shooting takes place at an abandoned building at the edge of town near the new tunnel.  The building, which already has a tragic, mysterious history, is rumoured to be a liaison spot for drugs, so it may be that the shooting was drug related. The story weaves together threads involving the new mayor and his assistant, Elín while other sections of the novel are narrated by an unidentified mental patient. With Ari distracted by the murder case, Kristin rather calculating weighs her options. The strain of the investigation pushes Ari’s relationship with Kristin to the limit, but perhaps her limit has shrunk since she met a divorced doctor at work.

As in Snowblind, the weather has a huge role in creating atmosphere. While the town, during the summer is beautiful, winter descends along with an accompanying sense of claustrophobia heightened by the reality that there’s one way in and one way out. Storms and snow hammer down on Siglufjördur, forcing people indoors and yet…. there’s still time for violence and murder.

She had been told that soon, around the middle of November, the sun would disappear behind the mountains for its long winter break and it wouldn’t return until late January, when the town would celebrate with solar coffee and pancakes. Elín still found it odd to contemplate complete, round-the-clock darkness. 

There’s something almost subversive about the Dark Iceland series. Perhaps it’s because all these dire deeds take place over the holiday season (November-January) and the idyllic location which conjures imagined Christmas card scenes meshes with the dark side of human nature.

No violence in Iceland? That’s bullshit. Sure it all looks quiet and friendly on the surface, but behind closed doors there’s an uncomfortable secret. 

Review copy

Translated by Quentin Bates

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Snowblind: Ragnar Jónasson

“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.

snowblind

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

Review copy

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Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

I’ll admit to a growing fascination with Iceland–not that I think I’d like to live there, but I can’t forget the scene of a character in the film Jar City going to a drive-in kiosk to buy a decidedly grey-looking sheep’s head for dinner. Given the weather and the terrain, there must be an impact not only on how people live, but also how they view life. These thoughts were all in the background as I read the Icelandic crime novel Ashes to Dust by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. 

The novel begins with a horrible murder and then segues to a scene in a small fishing village on Heimaey Island in the Westman Islands. Lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir has been retained by former islander Markus to defend what he claims is his privacy. Markus was just a teenager in 1973, and besotted with a local girl, when a volcano blew and the islanders were evacuated in the midst of panic and chaos. Now it’s 2007, and in comfortable middle age, Markus, one of the heirs to a fishing fleet, for some reason is extremely agitated by the news that an archaeological team engaged in a project known as “Pompeii of the North,” is about to dig his former home out of the volcanic dust. His legal action has effectively halted the ongoing dig, and the archaeological team members have interrupted their work in order to allow Markus to be the first one into his former home–specifically his basement which, he insists, he must be the first person to enter. Thora has accompanied her client to the dig, and after successfully arguing that he has the right to be the first one on the scene, she waits while he descends to the basement.    

When Markus discovers a severed head in the basement as well as three ash covered corpses, he becomes the prime suspect in a multiple murder case. He has a story–which cannot be substantiated–and Thora finds herself investigating a quadruple murder with all the clues long-buried in the past.

Ashes to Dust is a fairly complex story, and a rather large cast of characters are involved. While she tries to dig deeper into the investigation, Thora finds it expanding into an ever-widening circle, and she discovers that some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. One of the biggest puzzles is how four people can disappear without trace and their absence go unreported. Due to the island’s tiny population, Thora gradually rules out the possibility that the victims were locals and she begins to wonder if the dead men were involved in the Cod Wars.

Thora and her extremely interesting yet independent assistant, Bella form an ad-hoc PI team, and the investigation takes them from the closely-guarded secrets of the islands to the mainland where they question the role of a rape crisis centre and a swanky plastic surgeons’ office in the crime. As with any novel of this genre, some scenes give glimpses of the main character’s personal life, so we see Thora considering the pro and cons of a long-term relationship even as she juggles single parenthood and a son who’s recently fathered a child. The character of Bella, Thora’s secretary is handled in a rather unusual manner. Thora dismisses her rather unpleasantly as dressing as though “she were on her way to the stage to act in a play about the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang.” We’re also told that she wears make-up that makes her look like a “vampire.” I interpreted that to mean that Thora is a bit behind the times and doesn’t recognise Bella’s look as Goth. Bella turns out to be a far more complex character than Thora realised. She’s not above using sex to get information, and she’s also intelligent. There are a couple of amusing scenes, nicely placed in contrast to the murder investigation, which show Thora bitching at Bella to not charge alcohol to the expense account.

I had some difficulty with the names–my fault as I’m not used to Icelandic names, but apart from that the novel gave a taste of a Iceland–and specifically, a rather close-knit community that exists outside of the mainland in more ways than one.  At one point in Ashes to Dust, it’s mentioned that dog ownership was forbidden on the island, but that most of the cats there died in the volcanic explosion. Anyone have any ideas why dogs were forbidden?

Translated by Philip Roughton. Review copy from publisher.

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