Translated by Quentin Bates
Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books is playing a blinder. I’ve finished two of the earliest releases of her new Orenda imprint in the last few days (one review’s still in the middle of editing, as it’s such a huge, incredible, detailed, fabulous book), and this is the second one. BOTH of them are bloody fantastic – I turned the page at the end of this one, saw the next one was headed, “Acknowledgements”, and was absolutely gutted! (Just on the off-chance he had another wee twist lined up…!) Anyway – enough of my grumbling – to the book…
In a few reviews and articles about this novel in the last few weeks I’ve seen it described as “Golden Age meets Nordic Noir”, and that’s a pretty accurate description. It’s obvious the Nordic Noir part comes solely from the setting, but – Golden Age? Well, I’m no expert, but the first death – a possible murder – takes place in a theatre during the final rehearsal for an AmDram Society. Then there’s a woman found bleeding, possibly to death, in a garden in the snow, probably from a knife wound. The setting is genius: one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else, and whose parents lived there and knew everyone else, ad infinitum. Everyone knows – or suspects they do – everyone else’s business. There was also fairly limited use of technology to get answers – much detective work was done by observation (of things, and human behaviour), making connections between people, and just good, refreshing old-fashioned detective work. (I was going to say shoe leather, but, as the town is blocked in by snow for a great deal of the book – the main way to reach it being by tunnel – that would be completely inaccurate!) It takes a certain kind of mind to make these connections – it’s nothing to do with who’s the most technologically competent. And the guy who’s handiest in a fight isn’t going to come out on top either – so it was a deliciously old-fashioned mystery.
The main character is the new policeman in town Ari Thór, and this is his first posting. He’d already given up studying philosophy, then theology, before going to study at the police college. He’s left his medical student girlfriend, Kristín, back at college in Reykjavik, which perhaps wouldn’t have caused such problems if he’d told her of his job offer before accepting it! Also, his inability to return for Christmas doesn’t help matters. So, while they drift further apart, with phone calls becoming more and more frequent, he grows close to another incomer, Ugla, who’d moved here to get away a traumatic experience in her home town. Perhaps due to their mutual outsider status (although she’s lived there for four years, I would imagine that still makes you a new-ish face in such a place!), they bond quickly and easily. However, it isn’t an entirely easy start for Ari Thór – despite being told no-one locks their doors, he has a break-in – while at home. He also damages his shoulder while trying to apprehend the burglar – but has no clue what the perpetrator wanted.
The peripheral characters are nicely fleshed out – I’ll mention several of the more prolific, not giving any clues regarding whether or not they are guilty of anything, or whether they survive the novel, of course! There’s Hrólfur, writer of a single masterpiece novel, but now, in his golden years, chairman of the Amateur Dramatics Society; Úlfur, retired diplomat, now director of the AmDram Society; Pálmi, ex-schoolteacher and Hrólfur’s favoured playwright (despite Ùlfur’s ambitions in that direction!); Leifur, set-builder and part-time carpenter; Anna,wannabe leading lady, although on this occasion she is sidelined in favour of newcomer Ugla, to her chagrin; Nína, who’s about pensionable age and who works in the box office; and Karl, leading man and all round charmer, who’s married to Linda, a nurse at the hospital and the only one I’ve mentioned who’s not involved in the production. There are also Ari Thór’s colleagues – Tómas, the sergeant who runs Siglufjördur police station, and Hylnur.
I particularly enjoyed how everything was totally feasible – I get really irritated with books that have you thinking, but how did he know that? And why would she tell him that? (Aside – TV’s worse for that, but just thought I’d mention it as it’s a major bugbear of mine, TV or book!)
One peculiarity I did notice was how many characters had lost one, or both, parents, at a premature age. Perhaps I was looking a little too closely at all the deaths in a book about murder!
As well as solving the crimes which take place in the timescale of the novel, Ari Thór’s exceptional memory, analytical mind, and nose for anomalies – regardless of how old they are – means he solves some very old mysteries too, not all of them crimes. Or perhaps a fresh face – and perspective – views things more clearly than someone who’s been seeing them all their life? Perhaps Ari Thór simply had the benefit of a new, fresh take on things? Or perhaps he simply has the skills to become a very good policeman…as Jónasson clearly has to be a great crime writer.
At the very end of the book, I couldn’t help but admire how, well, unresolved Jónasson leaves things in the life of Ari Thór – ensuring he may have a bumpy ride ahead in the follow-up to Snow Blind, which will be called Night Blind. I for one will very much be looking forward to seeing how he resolves his next set of problems – and I’m sure I won’t be the only one!
Many thanks to the lovely Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, who allowed me to read an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.