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Ragnar Jónasson (Translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 30 June (e)/ 30 August (p) 2016
Source: I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of this book
Black Out is the third in this series featuring Icelandic detective Ari Thór Arason and the town of Siglufjörður. It is, however, the second in reading order. The first book to be published, Snow Blind, was the beginning. The second, Night Blind, which I reviewed here, jumps forward a number of years and shows where we are ending up, with a coda in which Jónasson presents a piece of prose by his father, describing the coming of Spring to Siglufjörður - a symbolic ending to the whole sequence, I think: the darkness is fading, and life returns to the little community.
That may be the endpoint but I think we're destined for some more dark days in the meanwhile as Arason and his family and colleagues more towards the light. And none more so that here. In this book, Arason is preoccupied by the breakup of his relationship with Kristín, something that distracts him from his work and - eventually - leads him into a very foolish act (we begin to understand why, at the start of Night Blind, he's been passed over for promotion).
Arason's colleague Hlynur also has preoccupations of his own and these practically paralyse him as a member of the team. Over the course of the book Hlynur's subplot of abuse and revenge plays in counterpoint with a wider theme, the havoc that cruelty, control and abuse can play as they cascade down generations.
As the story opens, a tunnel is being built to connect Siglufjörður more easily to the rest of the island and change is in the air. Better connections will bring new problems (as we see later in Night Blind). But even before they're complete, a young man, Elías, who was working on the project, is murdered. It rapidly becomes clear that he had fingers in many pies, but even so, who would want him dead? Tómas, who is still Inspector in Siglufjörður, has his work cut out with the crime - not only are his team under par but his wife has moved to Reykjavík and he's not sure whether to follow her there or abandon his marriage.
At the same time, Ísrún, a TV journalist, heads north from Reykjavík to cover the murder. We see some flashbacks of her life which show she, too, is preoccupied and has secrets. And so do other characters we meet in this book...
Out of this dense mesh of secret histories, hidden pain and repressed hatreds, Jónasson constructs a satisfyingly dense and murky mystery. Taking place in the middle of the summer, it's nonetheless very, very dark (especially for one character who never sees daylight throughout) and has overtones of tragedy: lives blighted by bad experiences, the abused becoming abusers, promise turned to ash which in turn blights others just as the ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano pollutes Reykjavík.
Overall it's a tense, fast moving narrative with some grim secrets at the heart. The story does perhaps dot around a bit, with separate flashbacks for different characters, so you have to keep focussed - it's probably a book to read in one or two goes. Definitely a worthy followup to Snow Blind and Night Blind - and I'm looking forward to the remaining books in the sequence: the darkness is definitely gathering.
One final note: I was struck by the sheer numbers of characters here who either tried to become doctors and failed, or turned to the bad in one way or another: apart from Kristín herself whose career is successful, but whose family life has collapsed, we meet a would-be doctor who crashed and burned, eventually turning to petty crime; a doctor who killed patients under the influence of drink and now lives in hiding, a psychologist who has abandoned that career for another.... there's also a certain dentist. I can't help feeling that for a population the size of Iceland's this is an awful lot of doctors!