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The Mystery novels of Ragnar Jonasson

Icelandic Noir for hot summer days

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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!

 

The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning



The perfect place to read

The perfect place to read

I often wonder when a new work of historical fiction about the Second World War is published what more can be said about that time. It must be a challenge to develop a story that has not already told. For a young Australian author, Kirsty Manning, it was because she knew nothing about the fact that many Jews escaped to Shanghai, as the Europe fell under Nazi control, until she read of it herself for the first time. She tells her story in a new novel The Song of the Jade Lily.

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It was possible to enter Shanghai without a visa at a time when many other countries would not accept Jewish refugees. And it was, and is, a fascinating part of Jewish and Chinese history. Younger readers should know about this time, and this novel does an admirable job of telling the story, through the voice of a young woman who lived it and a contemporary character, a young woman who is looking for answers about her heritage, as she struggles with moral issues involved in her own work. I found The Song of the Jade Lily a compelling story of a Jewish family who leave Vienna in 1938 for Shanghai, spending the war there, before emigrating to Australia when the Second World War comes to an end.

The Bernfeld family lived well in Vienna until the Nazi occupation when all Jews then found their lives restricted and in danger. Dr. Bernfeld uses a connection that allows him passage for his family to Shanghai, and the guarantee of a job. At this time the city of Shanghai was divided between the affluent, almost Parisian, Frenchtown, and the poor district of Hongkew, across the Garden Bridge. The experience of those living in each district is dramatically different. During their time in Frenchtown the Bernfeld’s live without personal hardship, though Dr. Bernfeld works to help those less fortunate in Hongkew who are living with hunger and hardship.

It is Romy Bernfeld who is at the centre of the story, a young girl when she arrives in Shanghai, and a young woman when she leaves. The story of the past is about Romy and her friend Nina from Austria, and her friend Li in Shanghai. Their school days, their teenage years, and their lives as young women during wartime are chronicled.

The contemporary part of the story involves Romy’s granddaughter, Alexandra, and her quest to find out about her birth mother’s heritage. Alexandra grew up without her parents, who died young in an automobile accident, her mother a baby of mixed race who was brought from China by Romy at the end of the war.

Alexandra works in London, England as a commodities trader – a job at which she excels. As the novel begins Alexandra is back in Australia to see her grandfather in the days before his death, and to stay with her grandmother afterwards. Alexandra is about to take on a position in Shanghai – where she intends to find answers to the questions that she feels she cannot ask her grandmother. She is also nursing a broken heart after the end of a long time relationship in London. So, we have a somewhat dramatic contemporary love story, and a young woman’s need to know about her origins, woven into a story about the Second World War experiences of Jewish refugees, and the Chinese who become their friends, sharing their culture, past and present.

The Song of the Jade Lily tells the story of wartime Shanghai and those who waited out the war there, as well as the struggle of those survivors when they later re-entered life in a safer place – always haunted by their experiences, and often unable to share the past with those they love in the present time.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

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Years ago I read When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson, a book with a lovely cover of a child running in sunshine through a field of hay. Idyllic. But, it is far from an idyllic story, and in fact the book begins with a very shocking event. It was, though, a great mystery novel, with a wonderful cast of characters, including Jackson Brody, who I discovered was also featured in two earlier novels, Case Histories and One Good Turn, and subsequently in Started Early, Took My Dog, and now in the 5th in the series, Big Sky. I have loved reading every one of them.

Kate Atkinson is well known for her literary fiction, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and more recently Life After Life, A God in Ruins, and Transcription. So, we have a writer of literary fiction writing a murder mystery series, and they are very good indeed! 

Big Sky opens with a couple rushing off, she in a wedding gown. Then they are gone. We are now introduced to a man who is encouraging a couple of young girls, sisters from Eastern Europe, to come to work in England – an opportunity to work in a good hotel and a better future than they have now. Of course, we discover it is not at all what it seems – something the unfortunate girls will discover only after their arrival in England.

Then we meet Jackson Brodie, and his son, Nathan. Jackson is a part time father and fulltime detective. He enjoys time spent with his son, and the dog that comes along with him when he visits.

At the Belvedere Golf Club we meet Thomas Holroyd, Andrew Bragg and Vincent Ives. And the novel is now well on its way, as the relationships between these men is revealed, and their wives are introduced to us. We discover the secrets that some of them would like to bury forever, and we come to like some of these people very much – and others we suspect may be the bad guys.

This is a tale of cruelty and desperation, and redemption and justice and revenge. We meet a woman who has left her past behind and finds herself the stepmother of a teenager and her own young daughter, both of whom she would fight for to the death. There is a husband deprived of his home – and his dog – in a bitter separation dispute – reduced to living above a chip shop and lugging his dirty clothes through the streets to the laundry. There is the arcade with its tired old shows of drag queens and ventriloquists.

Big Sky is so full of characters both good and evil that at times you may wonder where they all fit in the big scheme of things – just know that they do. You will also find, if you have read the other Jackson Brodie books, that there are some characters who seem familiar – and that is because we have indeed met them before in earlier novels. And yet, it does not matter at all if you have read the earlier books, as there is enough of the important things about Jackson Brodie’s past filled in that Big Sky can be read as a one off – but you will definitely want to read the earlier books in the series when you have finished this one!

 

     

The Ghost Road by Charis Cotter




If you are looking for a book for a 12 to 14 year old girl – I have the book for you! I promise you they will love The Ghost Road by Charis Cotter.

Every once in a while I read a pile of books written for teenagers – believing that if I am bored they will be too. When I recommend a book to a teenager I want to be able to say, “I loved it, and I guarantee you will as well”.

I have no doubts about recommending The Ghost Road by Charis Cotter!

Set in 1978, in rural Newfoundland this is a novel about ghosts, family secrets and for the two 13-year-old girls involved, Ruth and Ruby, it is about a summer of discovery.

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Ruby has come from Toronto to stay with her Aunt Doll in Buckle, a small harbour community in Newfoundland. She meets her cousin, Ruby, for the first time and the girls become fast friends. Apart from a striking physical resemblance, both of their mothers died when the girls were very young. Ruby’s father remarried and she has three younger brothers, but it is only this summer that Ruth’s father has married again, and is leaving for a trip to Greece with his new wife. Both girls feel a sense of loss, not only for the mothers they can barely remember, but also for the fathers who seem to have little time for them.

Aunt Doll allows the girls time to get to know each other, and for Ruth, raised as an only child, this new family is a wonderful experience. She meets Aunt Doll’s mother, a crusty old woman many call a witch. And Ruth finally understands why she has been having what appear to be visions – she has the Sight. As far back as can be known, from Ireland, seven generations earlier, some of the women in this family have had the Sight, and many have given birth to twins. Twins who die young, as did both Meg and Molly, the mothers of Ruby and Ruth.

The Ghost Road is a story about the past as much as the present, a past the girls discover through conversations with their Aunt and Grandmother, from the family tree found in the family bible, as they piece together the mysterious past, and the tragic coincidences that recur generation after generation. There is adventure, there is danger, there are family secrets revealed, and in the end there is an explanation for the curse on the twins in this family going back eight generations.

For Ruth and Ruby, two girls just finding their place in new family arrangements, the discoveries they make this summer provide them with a long line of family, and a sense of continuity. For Ruth, it is coming home to a home she did not know she had. She tells Ruby, “The rest of my life, outside of here, feels like a shadow. Or a black and white movie. But when I’m here in Buckle, it’s in colour.” It is the same for Ruby, and the two girls have found solace in each other.

Regardless of the changes in their lives the girls discover they are part of a long line of strong women. Ruth, who has dreams or visions of these women, comes to understand, “I think they’re all inside us, our mothers, our aunts, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They’re in there, living on in us.” 

 

A Trio of mystery novels


The Black Ascot by Charles Todd begins in 1910. The race at Ascot that year is called the Black Ascot to honour the late King Edward VII. The day ends with a death, and the beginning of a manhunt for the killer. We leap ahead in time to 1921 and find this old case re-opened when the man accused of murder, who disappeared a decade earlier, is sighted in England.

And once again, as always, we have the pleasure of spending time with Inspector Ian Rutledge as he puzzles his way through a complicated investigation. He believes there is enough evidence to prove that this man may be one who was sought in 1910 for the murder of a woman on the day of the Black Ascot. It is important to keep the investigation very low profile, so that it will not come to the attention of the man he seeks, and to avoid the attention of the press.

As always, Ian Rutledge struggles with his own demons, but less so these days. The investigation has our detective driving around the countryside in his lovely old car, staying in pubs and interviewing vicars. All the while building a picture in his mind of what really happened in the past.

Unto Us a Son is Given is Donna Leon’s most recent Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery, the 28th! She once again shares with us life with Guido and his family, and his team of detectives. This time it is Guido’s father-in-law who asks for an investigation into the affairs of his close friend. Count Falier has known Gonzalo for many years, and is considered an honorary family member by the Brunetti and Falier families.

Gonzalo, who has never married, has declared that he is adopting a young man. He wants an heir. The Count has misgivings, as do other friends. Brunetti is asked to look into the young mans past to see if he is worthy of Gonzalo’s trust.

Of course there is always more going on than is obvious at first. Donna Leon is in good form with this one, and gives readers a lovely, if somewhat murderous, time among the calles and canals of Venice.       

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The American Agent is the most recent Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear. Everyone is saying the best yet – and I must agree. It is now the fall of 1941, and London is suffering the Blitz, night after night many many citizens of London are killed, and everyone is on edge. These are dark days. The Americans have still not committed to offering assistance, though there are American broadcasters and journalists in London writing and speaking to the people of the United States, urging that America respond. The hope is that if the American public knows what is happening they will put pressure on their own government to take action.  

Maisie and her friend Priscilla are on nightly duty with the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service and with them, one evening, is an American journalist, Catherine Saxon. A short time later Catherine is murdered, and Maisie is called to take the case. What follows is another complicated investigation, involving many of those who knew the victim, one of whom will be the murderer. Everyone is suspect, including a man from the past who it is clear is attracted to Maisie – and she to him.

These are three of the most recent novels in some of our most popular mystery series – if you have not read any, start with the first and you’ll enjoy spending all summer with Ian, and Guido, and Maisie.  

 

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