Just before Christmas I heard about the Icelandic tradition of book giving and book reading on Christmas Eve. Envious of such a fine tradition, I tried to join in by reading a book by an Icelandic author, set in Iceland, over the Christmas break, starting in that fine Icelandic tradition on Christmas Eve. Snow Blind had been on my TBR pile for a while and fitted the bill nicely.
I am in Ragnar Jonasson’s debt. My reading year (which I always, for reasons lost in the depths of time, mark from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, rather than on the calendar year) could not have got off to a better start. Snow Blind is outstanding crime fiction – tense, atmospheric, plot-driven, human. It swings from compelling to shocking and back to compelling with a lyrical ease so smooth you don’t even realise your emotions are being rocked. (NB, no spoilers here, so read on.)
The clever plotting starts on page one, with a chilling crime scene. For scene two, we’ve been thrown back some 12 months. (Reader’s tip: pay attention to the timelines in the chapter headings from the get go!). By scene three, we really don’t know where, or when, we are. But relentlessly, with an excruciating inevitability, the three story lines mesh into a single web of intrigue and investigation. Give this book three minutes reading and you won’t want to put it down until you’ve finished. That’s a promise. A tense, tight plot is spun to tautness by masterful storytelling.
Ari Thor Arason, a decent young man still wet behind the ears and taking the first steps in a career in the police force, is uprooted from the busy hub of Reykhvik and takes a posting in the remote, northern fishing village of Siglufjordur. Siglufjordur is a small place, and like most small communities, everyone know’s everyone else’s business and almost everyone was probably in love with with some else’s partner years ago. Ari Thor finds himself oppressed not only by his sense of otherness, of being an outsider, but also by the guilt of what he’s left behind and most of all by the ever present mountains which surround the town and the relentless absence of daylight of an Icelandic winter. A constant, sometimes menacing, sense of place is essential to Snow Blind’s atmospheric charge: Siglufjordur is a real place, nestled along a narrow fjord and surrounded by mammoth snow-covered mountains, it could only be reached by sea until the 1940s when a long, thin tunnel was driven through mountain rock. When an avalanche blocks that tunnel, Snow Blind’s claustrophobic and inescapable isolation touches on malevolence, beautifully echoing and amplifying the deepened sense of plot-driven tension. And as winter and and his inner qualms threatened to overwhelm Ari Thor, he is thrown in at the sharp end of a complex web of inter-linked of jealousies and prejudice, illicit attractions and warped kindnesses which cover a crime of shocking callousness. I loved way in which Jonasson makes place and people inextricable.
Ari Thor is an engaging and likable ‘detective hero’ – although he has few heroic qualities beyond a basic decency and a determined, fine mind. He’s morally and ethically flawed, and all the more credible for that.
Things I liked less included the brief section where it’s clear that Ari Thor has found a game-changing clue, but it’s withheld from the reader. This always makes me feel a little cheated; and the one time where the theatre, a key place in the novel, is referred to as a cinema. Perhaps in Icelandic the terms are interchangeable, but the distinction was enough to bother me and momentarily break the Snow Blind spell while I worked out where on earth we’d got to.
Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson was published by Orenda Books in 2015.
I’m betting that Jonasson is set to become a leading challenger to the kingship of Nordic Noir. Signed first editions of this debut novel are already being offered at prices well above retail, suggesting that crime fiction fans are already backing his books as both readable and collectible.
I bought my copy of Snowblind (from the fabulous indy bookshop, Wimbledon Books and Music) on the recommendation of publisher Karen Sullivan or Orenda Books.
Addendum – added 14 January 2015
Delighted to have a response from the published on the cinema/theatre point, which speaks volumes of the care and attention to detail that authors get from Orenda Books. But even better for me, as a collector of crime and detective fiction books, is to have confirmation from the publisher of a ‘point of issue’ to identify a first edition beyond doubt (although I’m not sure whether this applies to the hardback version, which may be the true first).
— Karen Sullivan (@OrendaBooks) January 13, 2016