This recommendation comes from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.
Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Maxine, I hadn’t been blogging long before I learned from other bloggers how active she had been in promoting what tends now to be known as Scandi-crime. So I’m sure she’d have been enjoying Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series as much as I am.
Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson
It’s autumn in tiny Siglufjördur but it feels like winter is on the way. Ari Thór Arason, one of the town’s two police officers, is off sick with flu, so his colleague Herjólfur is on his own as he stands in the wind and rain outside an old, abandoned house a little way out of town, watching a light inside that seems to come from a torch. Summoning up his courage, he goes to investigate. It’s only when his wife reports him missing the next day that he is found, shot through the chest…
This is a cracking start to what turns into an excellent book. The combination of Jónasson’s great descriptive writing and Quentin Bates’ flawless translation immediately create an atmospheric sense of the isolation of this small weather-beaten place on Iceland’s northern shore. The characters of both Ari Thór and Herjólfur are quickly introduced with enough information for us to feel we know and care about them and, though this is part of a series, it works perfectly well as a standalone.
Although this is apparently the 6th in the Dark Iceland series, it’s only the second to be translated into English, so there has been a gap of a few years since we last met Ari Thór in Snowblind. He’s now living with Kristín and they have a baby son, though Kristín and he seem to be growing apart – a source of ongoing anxiety to Ari Thór, who loves his little family but isn’t always good at communicating how he feels. Ari Thór’s old boss, Tómas, has moved on to a promotion in Reykjavik, and Herjólfur has been brought in as the new inspector. Although the two men work together professionally, Ari Thór can’t help but be a bit resentful of the man who got the promotion he had also applied for, and this has caused a distance between them, preventing them from becoming friends. When Herjólfur is so seriously injured that he is unlikely to live, Ari Thór feels a sense of guilt that he never made more of an effort to get to know him better. But he’s happy to have his old mentor, Tómas, back – seconded to Siglufjördur to run the investigation into Herjólfur’s shooting.
There are so many things I like about Jónasson’s books – the characters, the sense of place, the way he stays well within the bounds of credibility at all times and, perhaps most of all, the excellent plotting. The books are solid police procedurals that don’t, as so much current crime fiction does, suddenly turn into ridiculous shoot-’em-up thrillers in the last few chapters. Instead, Ari Thór gets at the truth the old-fashioned way, by questioning people, sifting through evidence and motives, and using his brain. Jónasson plots beautifully, providing plenty of side tracks and red herrings for the reader to chase after, and using each of them as a way to show another facet of the small community of Siglufjördur. Ari Thór may have lived there for a few years now, but he’s still an outsider, still doesn’t know all the complicated relationships and old secrets that the locals share.
There’s some suggestion that the abandoned house may have been being used as a drop-off point for drugs. With a new access road, Siglufjördur is becoming more open to the outside world, bringing in tourists for the ski-ing, and new types of crime along with them. But Ari Thór can’t discount the possibility that the crime might have been personal – someone may have been deliberately targeting Herjólfur because of some secret in his past or present. It appears that Herjólfur’s last phone call was made late in the evening to the town’s new mayor, and the explanation the mayor gives for this sounds unconvincing – does he have some involvement? The old house has seen another tragedy in its time – a death, assumed to have been accident or suicide, of a young man who fell from a window balcony. Ari Thór thinks it’s unlikely there’s a connection, but feels he must investigate anyway. And meantime, the reader is being given short excerpts of a journal, written by an unnamed man in a locked psychiatric ward in the 1980s, gradually revealing what brought him there. It will be near the end of the book before we see how this strand fits in.
There’s also a side plot relating to the mayor’s deputy, Elin – a woman who has changed her name to escape from an abusive relationship. But with all the publicity surrounding Herjólfur’s shooting, her new identity is soon under threat. In this thread, Jónasson gives an utterly credible and terrifying picture, full of almost unbearable tension, of what it’s like to be the victim of extreme domestic violence; and introduces some real moral ambiguity that had me feeling thankful I didn’t have to make a decision regarding the rights and wrongs of it.
So plot, pacing, characterisation, sense of place, atmosphere and tension, translation – all excellent, and while Ari Thór’s personal life is developed enough to make him an interesting character, it never overshadows the more important detection element. I didn’t get close to the solution, but found it logical and satisfying once it was revealed, which makes it my favourite kind of plot. And looking back, I could see that all the clues were there. For me, this is about as good as the police procedural can get, and I sincerely hope they’re working hard on translating the rest of the series. If you haven’t guessed already, highly recommended!