“Blackout” (Dark Iceland) by Ragnar Jonasson – Saved from run-of-the-mill by atmospheric Icelandic introspection

This is my review of Blackout (Dark Iceland) by Ragnar Jonasson.

When an American student on a visit to the rural north of Iceland discovers the body of what looks like a murder victim, it is obvious that local police inspector Tómas will be involved, along with his competent if erratic assistant Ari Thór. But why does Hlynur, the third member of the team, seem to be “losing his edge”? Also, is there more than simple ambition in journalist Ísrún’s intense interest in the case?

The third novel to be published in Ragnar Jonasson’s “Dark Iceland” series of crime thrillers, “Blackout” is chronologically the second book, so is best read after “Snowblind”.

The series is not as dark as recent televised “Scandi Noir” but still manages to give essentially straightforward detective fiction a different twist by creating a strong, distinctive sense of place. So in “Blackout”, we have the cobalt blue waters of the northern fjords where cruise ships have begun to dock, the surreal experience of rambling along the shore on summer nights as bright as day, while by contrast the capital of Reykjavik languishes under an unfamiliar pall of volcanic dust and families struggle to rebuild their lives after the financial crash.

As in most police dramas, the likeable young detective Ari Thór has problems in his personal life, and undermines a flair for sniffing out the truth with impulsive behaviour and a difficulty in controlling his temper . However, in a book which possibly has too many characters, he is not clearly the main one. The author takes pains both to craft a complicated but coherent plot, and to develop his characters as individuals, giving us detailed insights into their thoughts, even when they prove to be minor players, although he tends to do this through an overuse of lengthy flashbacks and descriptive often rather similar back stories, with a theme of unhappy childhood and unfulfilled adult life. I am not sure how much it is due to the translation, but the style of writing is simple to the point of minimalist like the landscape of an Icelandic lava field. Sometimes the plot seems plodding, at least giving a sense of the tedious and often seemingly fruitless nature of police work, but the pace picks up at the end to give a satisfactory denouement, leaving the details of the aftermath to our imagination.

Even if the author’s main aim is to sell popular fiction, one senses he is a born storyteller, and with a serious, reflective desire to explore the complexity and darker sides of human nature.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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