Written by Ragnar Jónasson, translated by Quentin Bates — What expectations do you find yourself harbouring when you pick up a Scandinavian crime novel? Nordic noir is the term that comes to mind. Cold, dark winters, sombre landscapes, a lonely male detective and a plot throbbing with despair and social commentary… Well, how about a change of pace with Icelandic author Ragnar Jónasson? We still get the chill factor and snow over the fjords, but in addition to that we also get a healthy injection of Golden Age puzzle-making and what amounts to a locked-room mystery.
Snowblind is the first novel in the Dark Iceland series. Translation of the second novel is already in the pipeline, and there are three more in the original language. It introduces us to Ari Thór Arason, fresh out of police college after a stint of studying philosophy, then theology, and never quite finishing anything. In crisis-hit Iceland of 2008, he is delighted to have found a job even though it is in Siglufjörđur, the northernmost town in Iceland. The town is only accessible via a narrow road tunnel through a mountain.
His girlfriend Kristin, a medical student in Reykjavik, is not at all pleased at being separated from him, particularly over the Christmas holidays. But when there is a death at the local dramatic society, and a half-naked woman is found bleeding to death in the snow outside her home, Ari Thór feels he has no choice but to cancel his leave and get involved in the investigation.
Who would want the venerable old writer and founding member of the dramatic society dead? Why was the woman killed? Could the two deaths be linked? Ari is full of suspicions and ideas, but the local police chief is adamant that it’s all an accident. After all, nothing ever happens in this tranquil, close-knit community, where everyone knows each other’s business and people still leave their doors unlocked.
Yet all is not well in this serene little town. Many of its inhabitants appear to have secrets to hide. As the snow thickens and cuts off Siglufjörđur from the rest of the world, we are left with a classic case where there is a limited number of murder suspects, each with a back story, all with potential motive. Cast a detective with more intuition than experience and a puppyish enthusiasm for asking questions into their midst, an attractive young piano teacher that he feels attracted to… and you have a perfect storm in a teacup.
The writing is often poetic, always atmospheric, conveying perfectly that sense of claustrophobia and unease felt by the main protagonist. There are a few shifts in perspective and time, which add to the intrigue but may puzzle you initially. My only minor quibble would be that in the first few chapters there are a few repetitive statements about Ari’s situation and his relationship with Kristin. However, the sense of menace, solid plotting and strong characterisation more than make up for it.
Just when I think I’ve had enough of the frozen north, another promising author shows up. This is a truly enjoyable debut, hinting at much more to come. A charming combination of influences, which feels very fresh and will appeal to those who find cosy crime too twee and Scandinavian noir too depressing.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars