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Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson — atmosphere laden Nordic crime

Cover of Snowblind, an atmospheric novel set in Iceland by Ragnar Jonasson

Snowblind offers an interesting twist on the locked room murder mystery genre beloved of the Golden Age crime writers.

Ragnar Jonasson’s mystery takes place in Siglufjörður, a quiet fishing town on Iceland’s northern coast; a community so remote it can be reached only by sea or via a narrow tunnel carved through the mountains.

It’s winter when trainee police officer Ari Thór Araso arrives to take up his first post. If he was hoping for excitement, he is quickly brought down to earth — there’s so little crime in this town that no-one bothers to lock their doors. His days are spent handling paperwork and dealing with the occasional traffic violation.

The quiet routine is disrupted by the sudden death of a local celebrity author, found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in the town’s theatre. Soon after a young woman is discovered in the snow amid a pool of blood. Are these simply accidental deaths ? Or, as begins to suspect, have the tensions lurking behind the tranquil facade of this settlement spilled over into murder? As snow storms and an avalanche cut Siglufjörður off from the outside world, the fingers of suspicion point to the residents of Siglufjörður.

Snowblind has the feel of a classic murder mystery with a methodical investigation and more than a few red herrings, particularly as Jonasson plays a few tricks with his narrative structure. The extreme weather conditions add another dimension, creating just the chilling, sinister atmosphere I look for in Nordic crime fiction.

As far as the eye could see the world was white, the streets bleached with silvery snowdrifts piled across the pavements. The mountains sparkled, their peary surfaces broken by the occasional fleck of black. The pale sky was an indication that the next fall of snow was not far away. it was as if nature had called a temporary truce, although everyone knew that sooner or later the weather would close in once again.

This is the first of Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series which all feature Thór Araso. He’s an interesting departure from the moody detective figure familiar from the Wallender series by Henning Mankell or Arnaldur Indriðason’s detective Erlendur Sveinsson. It makes a refreshing change to get a young, slightly “green” investigator, instead of the world-wise detective carrying the baggage of broken relationships or drink problems.

Thór Araso is devoted to justice but prone to mistakes and errors of judgement. He’s found it hard to adjust to life in this community where everyone seems to know everyone. The locals are not especially welcoming, viewing him as something of an oddity especially when they learn he had once studied theology.

The isolation of Siglufjörður leaves its mark on the young officer, Without any friends in the town he is forced to spend more and more of his time alone, with just a book and music for company. The long dark days and unremitting snow push him into deeper into despondency, particularly as he reflects on his relationship with the girlfriend who chose to stay behind in Reykjavik.

Snowblind  won’t appeal to readers who like fast-paced, action-based crime fiction. But for people who enjoy novels that offer methodical plots, well-realised characters and a strong sense of their location, this would be hard to beat.

I read this as part of the NORDIC FINDS reading event hosted by Annabel @AnnaBookBel. There’s still time to join in the fun or discover what other people are reading by visiting the NORDIC FINDS page.

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