Review: Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

The sixth entry in Ragnar Jónasson’s “Dark Iceland” series is a gloriously unpretentious mystery. 

“Winterkill” presents police inspector Ari Thór with the crumpled body of a nineteen-year-old girl on the main street of Siglufjörður in the early hours of Easter Thursday. The circumstances around her death suggest suicide: a fatal fall from the balcony of an apartment whose occupier was away at a conference in Reykjavík. 

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Review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Is this a crime novel with ghostly undertones, or a ghost story with criminal connotations? Whichever way you look at it, “The Girl Who Died” is a bit of a disappointment. It never really chills or thrills, and its climactic revelations are curiously signposted. 

The story has potential; it just feels undercooked. The village of Skálar at the northeastern tip of Iceland, with its tiny population of ten, is perfect fodder for a creepy tale. Its protagonist, young school teacher Una, provides the ideal perspective to regard its unfriendly inhabitants. It’s set in the mid-1980s, before mobile phones made contacting the outside world a breeze. 

Una is isolated. She lives alone in the creaky attic bedroom of one of the town’s residents. And at night she hears singing. Is it the young girl named Thrá, who died in the house in 1927 under mysterious circumstances, whose ghost is rumoured to still haunt it? Or is she just losing her mind?

A few months into her stay, one of her two pupils collapses during the annual Christmas concert. It’s clear something maleficent has occurred. And given Skálar’s population, the pool of suspects is limited. The question bugging Una is whether the death is connected to the disappearance of a man who visited Skálar weeks earlier.

Ghost stories should build slowly and understatedly. Tension is derived from the reader’s knowledge that something nasty is around the corner — but which corner? Ragnar Jónasson’s “The Girl Who Died” reads too fast for its own good. I’m all for a page-turner, but not at the expense of mood. Scenes here have a sketched quality. Its characters aren’t given time to breathe, so they feel superficial. 

One of the great strengths of Stephen King’s most unsettling novels is their pacing, and that’s what feels off here. King understands the scale of scariness; how to intensify from a spine-tingle to teeth-chattering terror. Jónasson nails the claustrophobic atmosphere of a tiny town with secrets. But it never really elevates beyond mildly creepy, and its mystery is undercut by flashbacks that inform too much of the novel’s resolution. Readable as ever, and a pacy distraction, but this pales in comparison to the Hulda series.

ISBN: 9780241400135
ISBN-10: 0241400139
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 384
Published: 4th May 2021
Publisher: Penguin UK

Review: The Mist by Ragnar Jónasson

9780718189075Nothing could ever match the percussion-blast finale of Ragnar Jónasson’s first Hidden Iceland novel, The Darkness. But this third novel in the trilogy — or the first, chronologically, for its characters — is just as monumental, as it kickstarts the chain of events that ignited the psychological unravelling of detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir that has metastasized throughout the series.

When Jónasson introduced readers to Hulda Hermannsdóttir in The Darkness, she was 64-years-old and approaching retirement. In The Island she was in her fifties, in her prime as an  investigator; and in The Mist she is in her forties, and on the precipice of an unfathomable personal tragedy, whose aftereffects are deeply felt in every instalment of the series, and indeed in the second half of this one. Jónasson’s decision to tell Hulda’s story in reverse chronological order might sound gimmicky, but it’s a beguiling dynamic that augments these novels above the standard police procedural. All three have been slim, slick, and razor-keen, encompassing the very best of Icelandic noir traditions.

In The Mist, Jónasson parallels Hulda’s investigation into the disappearance of a girl from Gardabaet with a night of utter terror for Einar and Erla Einarsson at their isolated farm house in the east of Iceland during a violent snow storm. The suspense Jónasson evokes here is on the level of Stephen King’s Misery;  the twisty payoff as satisfying as the best of Harlan Coben. You could binge all three gleefully in an evening.

ISBN: 9780718189082
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 320
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 28-Apr-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Island by Ragnar Jónasson


9780718187828.jpgA fairly conventional whodunnit plot — a police detective is sent to investigate what happened on Elliðaey (an archipelago consisting of more than 15 islands located south of Iceland) after one member of a group of friends fails to return from their trip — is elevated into the top tier by one of the finest authors of crime fiction today. Although it lacks the percussion blast climax of The Darkness, Ragnar Jónasson’s second book in the ‘Hulda Series’ is a mesmerising psychological drama on loss, guilt and revenge; altogether haunting and thrillingly well written, the kind of book that will entrance you and keep you reading until the small hours.

When we met Hulda Hermannsdóttir in The Darkness, she was 64-years-old and approaching retirement, and handling her final case; in The Island she is in her fifties, in her prime as an  investigator; and in The Mist (published next year according to my sources see the internet) she’ll be in her forties. Jónasson’s decision to tell Hulda’s story from end to beginning yes, in reverse! is brilliant, and is a startling (and welcome) change of dynamic in the police procedural genre. Forewarned of what her future holds adds a whole new dimension to proceedings — which isn’t to say The Island can’t be enjoyed without reading its predecessor, but with two months until publication, you’ve got plenty of time jump on board this stunning trilogy and affix remarkable layers of poignancy to scenes involving Hulda’s family, and in particular, the novels dénouement.

Swift, sentimental, and deeply satisfying. Jónasson prudently strews clues and complications into Hulda’s investigation with unrivalled prowess. You’ll rapidly turn the pages to determine the killer; you’ll remember The Island, long after the mystery is solved, for its protagonist.

ISBN: 9780718187828
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Michael Joseph Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Apr-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

image (1)Damn, Ragnar Jónasson, where have you been all my life?

(In the crime section of every good bookshop I’ve visited, actually; including the one I work at — I’ve just never picked one up.)

The Darkness is a book that completely subverted my expectations and stunned me with its climax. Which is a rare thing. I read a lot of crime fiction. Like, a lot. It takes something special to impress me. And it takes something brilliant to steal the air from my lungs; that physically stops me launching up the escalator when I alight from my train at Kings Cross and instead take up residence on the left side of the moving staircase to enable an extra minute of reading. Jónasson’s writing is razor sharp. Nothing goes to waste. And its short, sharp chapters, and creeping sense of dread, tantalise you into reading just one more page, just one more page until you’re all out of pages, all out of book, and left with nothing but despair when you realise there’s months to wait until the next entry in the series.

On the eve of her abrupt and unwanted retirement, Reykjavík inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is allowed to pick a cold case to work on while she dwindles away her final days with a badge. Hulda reminded me a lot of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch; addicted to the mission, bleeds police blue, who truly relishes putting bad guys away. But she’s almost 65 and retirement is non-negotiable. The deaths of her husband and daughter — adroitly extrapolated  — have left her with nothing to look forward to, save for a fledging relationship with a man she’s not quite in love with, but in whose presence she finds great comfort.

The cold case Hulda plucks from the ether is a doozy: the death (suicide? murder?) of a Russian immigrant named Elena, who had applied for political asylum, which as Hulda quickly discovers, was granted; which makes her colleague Alexander’s handling of the investigation and ultimate conclusions all the more incongruous. Ineptitude? Corruption? A mixture of the two? As she digs deeper, Hulda confronts a legion of dark forces, not least of which are tendrils from her past, that threaten to finally consume her.

The Darkness will have you burning the midnight oil till 2:00am. It’s a gloriously compelling yarn, whose spell continues to hold even when you’ve turned its final page thanks to its unexpected ending, which, though confounding, is thematically apt. I can’t wait for Jónasson’s next; in the meantime, I’ve got his backlist to keep me busy.

ISBN: 9781405930802
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Oct-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom