Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson

SnowblindAri Thór Arason has just gained his first posting as a policeman. Unfortunately for his girlfriend Kristin, it takes him to the icy (icier?) north of Iceland, to the village of Siglufjördur. He finds himself struggling to settle in – not really that much of a surprise for a stranger in such an isolated community.

Soon there is a death in the local theatre and the rest of the community are convinced that it was nothing more than an accident. Ari Thór is not so convinced but only succeeds in annoying the local populace even more. But when another act of violence occurs, it seems that there is something dangerous lurking in the darkness…

After a quick check, it seems that Nordic Noir is the correct term for this one, rather than Scandi-Noir. Long term readers will know that this is a genre that I tend to shy away from, despite enjoying my one foray into it – The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg. But that unremitting grimness that is linked (correctly or incorrectly) to the genre put me off from returning.

So why now, when I’m supposed to be reviewing loads of Golden Age stuff? Well, two reasons. First of all, the author followed me on Twitter – what can I say, I’m shallow. And secondly, reviews have described it as… well, this is Spiegel Online (translated, I presume):

The plot is a successful chamber-play plot, transferred to a village. A classic who-dunnit where a whole theatre group is under suspicion. And in the end the culprit is someone you didn’t expect. What can you ask for more.”

And it is. Plot-wise, everything is there for the alert reader (not me) to get to the bottom of matters, although I think, if such a thing is possible, the clues are hidden too well. But everything is there. But I think what people are reading this one for is the atmosphere and the characterisation.

Every character on the page is a complex character with a deep background and the chapters focussing on those are utterly engrossing. It feels like a real community, admittedly with some unpleasant characters in it. And there is a realism to the denouement as well…

But at the end of the day, as much as the book impressed me, it’s too dark for me. As the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu would attest, “It’s Grim Up North”. There isn’t a glimmer of light for any of the characters. Even David Mark’s black-as-pitch Original Skin has Aector’s relationship with his wife providing a contrast to the darkness, whereas here, our hero’s love life is another problem without an easy solution.

So, a well-crafted mystery novel but not my cup of tea tonally, but then Nordic Noir (in my limited experience) rarely is. I’m sure fans of the sub-genre will absolutely love it.

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17 comments

  1. Did it feel padded? That’s been my main issue with Nordic Noir so far – I’ve not read one that isn’t 30% too long for its content. But then I’ve mostly been reading books from the trashier end of the spectrum (Nesbo/Larsson etc.)

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    • I agree Rich, though it seems to me that this is true of practically 90% of every mystery / thriller being published today – no wonder I like Simenon and the early Ed McBain books 🙂

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      • In some ways, that’s the joy of the e-reader. Often I’m unaware of the page count going into the book, and I’ve encountered some cracking authors that way.

        And it avoids the other thing the can be a spoiler that I didn’t mention – the page count. If the villain is unmasked with 50 pages to go, you know something else is coming… (or the last part of the book is very boring)

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      • I agree Rich, though it seems to me that this is true of practically 90% of every mystery / thriller being published today – no wonder I like Simenon and the early Ed McBain books

        I’m with you on this, although it seems that some of the longest books do justify their page-count. I’ve enjoyed The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, The Twenty-Year Death and An Instance of the Fingerpost, despite their all being north of 600pp. It’s the 300/400-pagers that often seem 50% longer than they should be.

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      • I have all three of those on the TBR pile John but glad to hear they are worthwhile as the only thing holding me back was the the length – well, that and the fact that I got the Ariel Winter in hardback, so it’s reallt not conveninet for the commute on the tube!

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    • Not at all – there are a couple of chapters giving the life story of a couple of the characters but if anything, these are the best chapters in the book. And it’s actually a relatively quick read – only 300 pages.

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      • That’s good to hear. I’m now much more inclined to give this a look. I’m not as turned off by relentlessly dark content as you, especially in a shorter book (although a few glimmers of hope or humour are always appreciated!)

        And it’s not that I’m against long books or demand everything be pared down unless it furthers the plot. Most of my favourite books are essentially shaggy dog stories, including one of my favourite mysteries (Stop Press! by Michael Innes, which must be north of 800 pages – absolutely enormous for a Golden Age mystery). But a lot of Nordic Noir I’ve read has just been loose and sloppy on a sentence level. Possibly this is a problem with the translation. Donald Someone-or-Other seems to have a bit of a monopoly here, and he’s either not got a very good ear for thriller/crime style or is deliberately choosing fidelity to the original text over natural sounding English to an almost ludicrous degree.

        But having now translated a few mysteries myself in addition to editing, I think it’s more likely that European publishers are just as lax with their editing strategies as British and US ones, which as a translator is hard to fix. There’s a distinct attitude of “that’s good enough” in modern crime and thriller editing, which produces flabby books. (This isn’t necessarily the fault of editors themselves, who are so criminally underpaid that there’s really no choice but to settle for mediocre results.)

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  2. Sounds great — must give it a try!

    The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

    I actually thought this one was very poor, and am surprised you liked it. The whole business — and it happens more than once — of our heroes discovering clues that are then withheld from the reader for dozens of pages is surely in violation of the basic principles of the ‘tec (and it certainly annoyed me a lot), while all the dreary stuff about the female lead behaving like a twelve-year-old at the prospect of a date struck me as false characterization.

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  3. I attempted to read the book but I gave it up after reading about 25% since I found it dull. I then read the last 3 chapters and find that it is too dark.
    Nordic noir is clearly not for me.
    I find it one thing rather strange. The Nordic countries are supposed to be places of happiness with equality, social justice and liberalism. Then why do they produce such dark literature ?

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