Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 1 November 2017
Today I'm joining the blogtour for White Out, a book I've looked forward to reading and reviewing. I'm grateful to Orenda Books and to Anne for a copy of the book and for inviting me to take part in the tour.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year...
Ari Thór is back in Jónasson fifth Dark Iceland book (though - reader beware! - they have not appeared in order, so the events in this book occurs earlier than in some I'd already read).
Here, he's drawn by his ex boss Tómas into investigating a death taking place just before Christmas. Rather than leave the heavily pregnant Kristín home alone over the festive period, she accompanies him to Kalfshamarvik. There, Ari Thór and Tómas find an isolated group living in a remote house on the north coast - the edge of the inhabitable world.
A young woman, Ásta has been found dead at the foot of a cliff - the same cliff where her mother and sister died. Did she travel there from Reykjavik to kill herself?
What really happened to the rest of her family?
Mystery interweaves with the lives of all the others who live on the isolated headland - brother and sister, Thóra and Óskar, local farmer Arnór and wealthy businessman, Reynir. For that matter, Ásta's past is something of a mystery. This story is perhaps a much more conventional mystery story - almost a classic setup - that the Other Dark Iceland books that I have read. There isn't the thrillery sense of other books in this sequence. To begin with, Ari Thór isn't called on to do more than observe and question, we have a very, very narrow field of suspects and the setting is drawn in such a way that wider entanglements such as political corruption or organised crime seem unlikely.
Rather we have an intense psychological study of the four residents (not forgetting Arnor's wife, of Asta and even, to a degree, of Ari Thór and Tómas themselves. Motivations, locations and lies are slowly teased out and layer after layer of the past turned over and exhibited.
What does Oskar get up to when he shuts himself away in his room?
What is Thora hinting she knows?
But above all, are those deaths all linked?
With no certainty that a crime has actually been committed, Tómas is under pressure to wrap things up quickly. His superiors would, it is implied, welcome the whole thing being sorted before the Christmas holiday. Similarly Ari Thór wants to return home to spend Christmas alone with his family. You can feel the tension rising as things probe more complicated than they seemed. It's a short book, but an intense one, with a claustrophobic atmosphere oddly heightened by the Christmas cheer being doled out on the radio, in the hotel, in the church.
That makes it, in my view, an excellent Christmas read (we need a touch of darkness alongside the enforced jollity) and it is an excellent primer on Icelandic Christmas customs, too, which may have picked up some of the cultural baggage of the UK and USA but clearly still retain much of their distinctiveness.
As ever, Quentin Bates's translation is excellent, achieving both familiar, natural English that makes the translatedness near invisible but also a distinct sense of difference appropriate to portraying a different country.