Ragnar Jónasson (ragnar-jonasson.squarespace.com)
Translated by Quentin Bates (graskeggur.com)
Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)
The violent death of Siglufjördur’s police inspector heralds a new age for the small northern Icelandic town. There are rumours of drug deals gone bad, police corruption and the involvement of the town’s mayor and deputy mayor. Ari Thór Arason, Siglufjördur’s remaining policeman, recovering from illness and dealing with the stresses in his relationship with the mother of his son, requests the help of his old boss, and together they investigate, leaving no stone unturned, no skeletons in any of the town’s closets, unravelling, as they go, a fifty-year-old mystery surrounding the house where the police inspector was murdered.
Nightblind is the second of Ragnar Jónasson’s novels to be published in English, even though it is the last of a five-book series published in the author’s native Iceland. Readers of Snowblind expecting to pick up where the first book left off may be disappointed, but if, like me, you missed that first book, it makes Nightblind a good jumping-on point, safe in the knowledge that it’s a reasonably stand-alone piece of fiction.
The book opens with the death of Herjólfur, the new police inspector of the small town of Siglufjördur, a remote town in the far north of Iceland with few links to the rest of the country due to the mountains and sea that surround and isolate it. Ari Thór Arason, the town’s remaining policeman, is finally starting to feel welcome as a local after five years serving the town and is unsure how best to look at Herjólfur’s tragic demise: as the tragedy it is; as a near miss, since it should have been him on duty when the murder took place; or as the long-awaited opportunity for Ari Thór himself to step up into the role of police inspector. As he and Tómas, Herjólfur’s predecessor who has since moved to Reykjavik, investigate, it becomes clear that Herjólfur may have been involved in shady deals, and all clues seem to point to the man who has recently become the town’s mayor, and the mysterious young woman whom he has chosen as his deputy and who is on the run from her own tortured and dangerous past.
With the exception of Tómas, who we really only see through the eyes of others, Jónasson gives us in-depth access to the minds of the central characters. What becomes immediately obvious is how unlikeable each and every one of them is: from Ari Thór whose self-interest and self-pity quickly wear thin, to Mayor Gunnar Gunnarsson whose private life is in danger of encroaching on his public life, to Siglufjördur’s resident criminal whose seemingly innocent mention of Ari Thór’s family hides a world of dangerous intent. In many ways Tómas is the only character with an ounce of humanity, an illusion perhaps created by the distance Jónasson maintains between him and the reader.
The town of Siglufjördur is an integral part of the story, and becomes a character in its own right. With a similar feel to the eponymous location of British television’s Fortitude, this small town likes to keep itself very much to itself, despite recent developments that allow more traffic to flow through the small town centre. Set at the onset of winter, Jónasson gives us some idea of the harsh conditions that have created this small, tight-knit community who spend three months of every year in almost complete darkness due to the mountains that surround them. There are a number of key themes that run through the book, giving the story an added depth that can sometimes be lacking from straight crime fiction, especially crime fiction of this length (Nightblind comes in at barely 200 pages). The most obvious of these is the sense of belonging or, more correctly, the feeling of not belonging; none of the key characters – Ari Thór, Herjólfur, Gunnar, Elín – are Siglufjördur natives, and it shows, despite their public roles within the community. There is a sense that the town is keeping something to itself, and one wonders what the locals know that we – and the story’s central characters – do not.
Other themes feel very closely linked together: no less than three of the characters are currently, or were at some point in the past, being unfaithful to their wives, husbands or partners. Without introducing spoilers, it’s sufficient to say that these traits don’t help in endearing the characters to the readers. Tied closely with this is the misogyny and violence against women – again, in more than one unrelated instance – that, in some ways, forms the very foundation of the story. Despite the small-town setting and the sometimes-laid-back nature of the people who live there, Nightbllind has a dark heart that turns this slim volume into something special.
Tensely plotted and perfectly paced, Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind is something of a revelation. There is no need to understand the backstory of these characters (thankfully, since three of the earlier books aren’t yet available in English!) in order to fully appreciate the events of the story. It’s a clever whodunit with a cast of memorable – though, to varying degrees, unpalatable – characters in whose stories, beyond all reasonable expectations, we find ourselves totally invested and a beautiful desolate setting that is as cold as it is exotic. I, for one, will be adding Snowblind to my reading list, and will be looking forward to the further adventures of the townspeople of Siglufjördur. In the meantime, I can’t help but recommend Nightblind to anyone who enjoys their crime fiction on the darker side.