Author – Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Published – 2011 (2015 in translation)
Genre – Crime fiction
Score – 4/5
It’s an odd situation that Ragnar Jónasson has been a familiar face on the crime fiction circuit for some years, but this is the first opportunity for those of us who only read English to judge his ‘Iceland Noir’ credentials and he is not found wanting.
Ari Thór Arason is a recently qualified policeman living in Reykjavik with his medical student girlfriend. When an opportunity for his first posting comes up it’s in Siglufjörður, a small, isolated fishing town right the way up in the north of Iceland. Although his girlfriend is unenthusiastic about the situation he accepts the position and quickly moves, alone, to this close knit community. The setting for the book is incredibly important; the location is particularly isolated, not only is it physically remote but during the winter it is in perpetual darkness and the inclement weather only adds to the difficulties of going to, or escaping from, the town. It’s a small community where people don’t lock their doors and nothing ever happens – but of course if that were the case we wouldn’t need our intrepid detective!
Although Ari Thor is the main character, the story is told from multiple points of view and I found it a little difficult to get a handle on who each character was and what their relevance was to the story – but it all became clear in the end. The story is a ‘small-town’ one, initially involving the seemingly accidental death of a prominent member of the community who is involved in the local dramatic society, something which Ari Thor’s boss believes only requires a perfunctory investigation. Jónasson uses the choice of setting to his advantage, making the most of the conditions as a way of limiting the pool of suspects and adding an extra layer of tension. It’s actually quite surprising how many of the community are outsiders – people hiding from something, whilst those born there are perhaps more prone to seek an escape to the south. It’s perhaps Ari Thor’s position as an outsider that lets him question his boss and pursue the case.
The small town nature of the setting means that the investigation focuses on long hidden secrets, illicit affairs and long held grudges. Jónasson’s writing hones in on the minutiae of the characters’ lives and memories, but pay attention because hidden in all of this detail are clues crucial to the resolution of a number of different threads within the story.
It’s impossible to review this book and not make a reference to Agatha Christie. The reason is that Jónasson is renowned for being a huge fan, having translated fourteen titles into Icelandic. I wouldn’t say that this has obviously influenced his writing style, but the setting is perhaps an Icelandic St Mary Mead where people know, or think they know, each other’s business. The clever plotting, attention to detail and red herrings are certainly in the Christie style.
Snowblind is the first in Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series and there are currently 4 more books to be translated. It’s interesting that the translation is by Quentin Bates, a successful author in his own right who sets his own books in Iceland, although writing them in English. A book can be spoilt by a poor translation, something you only notice when a phrase jars and you’re reminded that the work was originally written in another language. Fortunately, as you would expect, there is no such issue here.
Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on My Little Pile of Rocks.