Icelandic Noir for hot summer days
Ragnar Jonasson is the author of The Dark Iceland Series featuring policeman Ari Thor Arason, and The Hidden Iceland Series with Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir. The second book in the Hidden Iceland series crossed my desk this spring, and was the first I read by this author – I liked it enough that I have just finished reading the first in that series, and the first two in the Dark Iceland series - and I have the rest on my summer reading list.
The Island, the second Hulda book, takes place in a remote part of Iceland where a group of young people has gone for the weekend. Some days later, when the local police find the body of a girl, Hulda Hermannsdottir is called to investigate. Hulda is a complicated woman, a dedicated policewoman, a novelty. She grew up in post WW2 Iceland as the child of a local woman and an American serviceman, and she is now looking for information about her birth father, while still haunted by the suicide of her young daughter. Hulda’s personal struggles are as much a part of the story as the investigation, and as interesting.
The Darkness, though the first book in the series, takes place many years after the second. In fact, I would recommend reading them in this reverse order, as I think reading the second in the series first makes both books more suspenseful and the surprising ending of the first book much more dramatic.
I found both books – the only two of four translated into English – compelling in character, time and place. I found Hulda a sensitive, damaged, woman but still one who has dreams and a certain optimism in spite of depressing situations. There is also, occasionally, a little black humour. The last day in The Darkness is a “day from hell” thinks Hulda, a day she should never have gotten out of bed. Little does she know that it only gets worse.
We think of Icelandic noir in mystery fiction – the long dark nights – the alcoholism – the brutal debt collectors – often set in a landscape of isolated beauty. And the books of Ragnar Jonasson do not disappoint.
The Dark Iceland series, now a series of four in English translation, is one I have been selling for years without reading, until now. Snowblind begins the series, and we meet Ari Thor just as he begins his first job as a policeman. He leaves his girlfriend, Kristin, in Reykjavik and heads north. He is new to policing and new to this remote community – where everyone knows everyone and nothing ever happens. What does happen, almost immediately is the discovery of a woman, unconscious and bleeding, half naked, in the snow in her own backyard. This is soon followed by the death of a member of the local Dramatic Society. In a place where nothing ever happens it is all a bit much to be going on with. Slowly going on with. Ari Thor is young, but he is observant and lacks the prejudices of this superiors.
I immediately carried on reading the second in the series, Nightblind. It is some years after the events in the first book, and Ari is now a familiar face in the small community he almost calls home. He and Kristin now have a young child, and Kristin is working as a doctor in a hospital in a nearby community. Their relationship is strained – there were times I felt like shouting at them to just talk to each other about how they really feel! Not having read the third and fourth installments of this series I don’t know if they stay together – or not. Which is one of the pleasures of reading a series of books. The mystery element, the murders and the investigations, are different in each book but there is always some development in the lives of the characters whom we have come to care about.
Ragnar Jonasson is a lawyer, who teaches at Reykjavik University, and works as an Investment Banker. All of his books have become bestsellers in Iceland, and have been translated into many languages. Before he wrote his own novels he translated many of Agatha Christie’s novels into Icelandic – obviously learning some tricks of the trade along the way. And he is only now 43 years old!