This is my review of Snowblind (Dark Iceland) (Dark Iceland 1) by Ragnar Jonasson.
Being a sucker for detective fiction, I was ready to be hooked by this novel set in Siglufjörður, a real but obviously fictionalised small town in northern Iceland. It seems implausible that fresh from police college Ari Thór would leave Reykjavik to accept a post there, without having visited the place or discussed the move with his trainee doctor girlfriend, still less likely that the job would be offered without interview, unless it is very hard to fill. This seems possible in that Ari Thor soon develops misgivings over the isolation of the small town, linked by road to the rest of the world only via a narrow tunnel, together with the apparent lack of any real crime, and the sense of being an outsider heightened by finding himself an instant topic of unbridled gossip in the close-knit community.
Although the book is halfway through before it gains the momentum to become a full-fledged crime mystery, I like the way that Ragnar Jonasson sets the plot against the background of the 2008 financial crisis, referring continually to its implications for ordinary people, and also describes a pattern of life in which Icelanders are often obliged to leave their home towns for work, yet feel drawn back inexorably, partly by the magical beauty of the summers. Although the author writes less than I had expected about the depressing effect of prolonged darkness, he conveys well the claustrophobia created by heavy snowfalls which trap people in their communities. Ari Thór’s immaturity and impulsiveness, his attempts to conceal his inexperience and difficulty in handling his relationships with women all seemed quite convincing and aroused my sympathy.
I suppose this has been called literary fiction because the main characters are developed in some depth, with an attempt to explore their psychology and inner thoughts. The problem for me is that at first there seem to be too many of them, with over-similar “voices”, each revealed in turn in a somewhat indigestible slab of backstory, often involving the traumatic effect of the death of a close relative during the character’s childhood or youth.
Clues are dropped on the way, without being too obvious, and the plot is credible but the “denouement” seems a bit rushed. Also, although the English translation comes across as natural and does not jar, the style tends to be bland and prosaic, so may not do justice to the original.
Scandi-gris rather than noir, this is an easy, entertaining read, with some interesting psychology and a strong sense of place but which lacks tension or striking prose.