Written by Ragnar Jonasson, translated by Quentin Bates — With its unique blend of a Golden Age-style mystery and a bleak, frozen Icelandic setting, Snowblind was one of our top five debuts of 2015. Just when you thought you’d seen it all in Scandinavian crime fiction, Orenda Books released a brand new flavour and everyone, it seems, got excited.
Nightblind is a different package, and reads more like a police procedural than a Golden Age mystery. It’s an interesting move by Orenda and the author to have the fifth novel in the original Icelandic series follow the first. They say it’s because Snowblind and Nightblind are both set in Siglufjordur – the most Northern town in Iceland – and that it’s been done for reasons of continuity. Maybe books two, three and four introduce other locations for Jonasson’s police detective Ari Thor Arason? We’ll find out in July when Blackout is released.
So, several years have passed but Ari Thor still isn’t the top cop in Siglufjordur. Passed over for promotion, he works with his relatively new superior Herjolfur. However, in the first few pages of the book the poor fellow takes a shotgun round while investigating a call-out to an abandoned house. It’s a freezing January, and Herjolfur’s hangs by a thread in hospital. Ari Thor begins enquiries into the shooting feeling a guilty that he wanted Herjolfur’s job, but instead of running the investigation himself his previous boss Tomas is parachuted in and they work together once again.
The book offers a wonderful insight into what things are like in Iceland, with its tiny population. One theory is that the shooting was drug-related so they bring in small-time local dealer Addi Gunna. He just happens to be Tomas’ cousin, and Tomas has a story about how Addi saved him in a snowstorm when they were kids. Still, Addi seems pretty menacing towards Ari Thor.
Other leads, motives and angles are sparse but they do question Herjolfur’s family, and later they find out that a local teacher had a shotgun in his garage, which is now missing. Running down leads relating to the gun, it turns out several people knew about the weapon and that it wasn’t kept under lock and key.
Although the chapters are brief, progress is slow for our detectives, with Ari Thor wrestling as much with his angry temperament and dissatisfaction with his home life as with the details of the case. He and girlfriend Kristin have a 10-month old little boy but she is distant and Ari Thor is rarely at home, other than to eat and sleep. Every few chapters, the story is broken up by a second narrative, from someone in a mental asylum. It’s not clear if, or how they relate to the case, but this person is violent and deranged, and repeatedly complain about the meds.
It isn’t until a second mini plot line emerges that the book really gets going. One of the suspects in the book is attacked by her violent ex-partner and suddenly Ari Thor and Tomas have another bloody case to deal with. With the hand grenade of domestic violence thrown into proceedings a slightly more psychological dimension is added to the existing whodunnit mystery and it becomes a gripping read in the final third. Meanwhile, issues between Ari Thor and Kristin also come to a head.
Nightblind doesn’t quite live up to the expectation left to it by the brilliance of Snowblind. The frequent visits inside the head of the patient in the asylum serve to break up what is already a slow story, and they soon become repetitive. The investigation itself seems rather passionless on the part of Tomas and Ari Thor. A policeman has been gunned down – you’d expect fingertip searches, house-to-house enquiries, perhaps even roadblocks, and a lot more officers. But it never seems like that big a deal and though the plot is cleverly knitted there’s little sense of fear or excitement, even though an extremely dangerous character is on the loose in Siglufjordur.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars