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Book Author: Ragnar Jónasson

THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Imagine yourself as a thirty-year-old woman:   you leave your teaching position in Reykjavik, travel 700 kilometers (435 miles) to a village at the most western point in Iceland where you know no one, become a teacher to two young girls, live in an attic that by tradition is haunted, and discover that there is only one person in the town who wants you there.  That is the story of Una in The Girl Who Died.

In a departure from his other stand-alone mysteries and his two police procedurals, Ragnar Jónasson brings us to Skalár, a remote village on the Langanes Peninsula. This is where Una (most Icelandic people are known by their first names only) is hoping for a better, happier life.  Scraping by on her salary as a teacher in the country’s capital, having no romantic attachments, few friends, and a loving but remote relationship with her mother, she decides to take the position advertised for a “teacher at the end of the world.”

The harrowing car trip to Skalár should have been a sufficient warning to Una that her time there would not be an easy one.  Indeed, when she arrives she finds that the only person in the village who welcomes her arrival is Salka, the woman who pushed for Una to be hired and who has offered Una a room in her home.  Salka is a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Edda is one of the two pupils in the town; nine-year-old Kolbrún is the other.  Skalár’s other residents, with one exception, are either indifferent to her arrival or clearly unfriendly, and Una can’t understand why.

The exception is Thór, a single man living with Hjördís, the woman who owns the farm where he’s staying.  Although he’s friendly, he doesn’t tell Una what brought him to the village or where he came from, and her brief encounters with Hjördís seem to Una to verge on the hostile.  She doesn’t think the two are in a relationship, but what are they to each other?

Enforcing her loneliness is the dismal weather, the lack of pleasant company, and such amenities as a restaurant, television reception, or a library.  And Una is plagued by nightmares.  She keeps hearing a lullaby and seeing a young girl in a white dress, appearing first in her small room in the attic and then in different rooms of the house.  She finally approaches Salka with her concerns and hears the story of a young girl who lived in the house and died there in 1927, a story that does nothing to put her mind at ease.

As in all Jónasson’s novels, The Girl Who Died features a cast of fascinating characters, a riveting plot, and a sense of a country that is unique for its language and culture.  This is another outstanding Icelandic mystery.

Ragnar Jónasson is a best-selling author in Iceland and the winner of several international awards.  He is the co-founder of Iceland Noir, the Reykjavik international crime writing festival.  Beginning at the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.  In addition to the English editions, his own books have been translated into French, Italian, Polish, and German.  Ragnar has a law degree, works as an investment banker in Reykjavik, and teaches law at Reykjavik University.

You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE MIST by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Three seemingly unrelated mysteries come together in Ragnar Jónasson’s latest thriller, The MistReading this novel is like watching a master weaver at work; at first there’s no pattern that the reader can detect, but at the end the pattern is evident and perfect.

The novel opens with Hulda Hermannsdóttir, a Reykjavik police detective, sitting depairingly in her office on a February morning.  We won’t find out the reason for her emotions until the end of the book, but it’s obvious that something terrible has happened to her.  She has just returned from compassionate leave, and her greatest fear is being ordered to take another one, so she’s eager to investigate the “horrific” discovery her supervisor tells her about.  Two bodies were found in a rural farmhouse in eastern Iceland, and it appears that they have been there since Christmas.

The Mist flashes back several weeks to the home of Einar and Erla Einarsson.  A blizzard is bringing an incredible amount of snow to their remote homestead, leaving the two even more isolated than usual, and Erla is busy preparing the typical Icelandic Christmas dinner to celebrate the holiday.

There are no neighbors for miles around, the roads are impassible, yet suddenly there’s a knock on their door.  The visitor, who tells them that his name is Leó, says he was on a hunting trip with two friends when they got separated and that he wandered around the desolate landscape before finding their house, the only one that appeared inhabited.

Erla is more suspicious of the stranger than is her husband.  It’s a story that is just possible, she thinks, but the idea of three people hunting during a blizzard is strange to say the least.  However, there’s nothing to do but to allow Leó to come in to rest and join them for lunch, and as the snow is worsening Einar feels compelled to invite him to stay overnight.

The third mystery is the disappearance of a young woman taking a gap year between high school and university.  Unnur was backpacking around Iceland, beginning work on a novel, when she sees a brochure for volunteers to work on a farm in exchange for room and board.  It sounds like the perfect place to earn a bit of extra money and start her book, so she travels to the farmhouse to find out if help is still needed.

The author’s writing and plotting are masterful, as always.  The Mist is the fifth mystery of Ragnar Jónasson’s that I’ve reviewed, and it is as satisfying as the previous ones.  The characters and their motivations are totally realistic, and the beauty as well as the remoteness of Iceland are well portrayed.   The novel is narrated at different points by Hulda, Erla, Leó, and Unnur, and each voice is authentic and believable.

Ragnar Jónasson writes the Dark Iceland series featuring Ari Thor as well as the Hulda series.  In addition to writing, he has a law degree, is an investment banker in Reykjavik, and is the co-founder of the international crime writing festival Iceland Noir.  His books have been translated into numerous languages including French, German, Italian, and Japanese.  In addition, starting at age 17, he began translating Agatha Christie’s novels into Icelandic.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

RUPTURE by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

For a very small country–its population is under 350,000–Iceland appears to have a lot of crime.

Things have been quiet, too quiet, in Siglufjördur.  The small town is under quarantine due to a deadly virus brought by a traveler from Africa.  Sadly, the man died the day after he arrived, and one of the nurses caring for him died shortly after that.  So the shops, schools, museum, and library are all closed, and the streets are deserted.

The unnatural silence leaves police detective Ari Thór with time to follow up on a rather strange request.  A man called Hédinn comes to the police station to explain why he is seeking Ari Thór help.  Hédinn tells Ari Thór that fifty years ago his parents, along with his mother’s sister and her husband, bought land in a remote, uninhabited fjörd miles from anywhere.  Hédinn was born the year after the four moved there, and the five of them left the year after that, so obviously he has no memories of his birthplace.

Now Hédinn tells the detective he wants to get to the bottom of the tragic event that occurred shortly after his birth.  His aunt died, the cause of her death uncertain.  She drank rat poison, there was no way to summon a doctor or ambulance in time, and she died shortly after ingesting it.  At the time the official version was that it was a terrible accident that happened because the poison was kept in a cupboard near the sugar, which it closely resembled, but Hédinn says there were always suspicions that it was either suicide or murder, both equally difficult to prove.

Now Hédinn has received a photo taken by his uncle.  In it are his mother, his father, his aunt, and himself as an infant being held by a young, unknown man.  He wants Ari Thór to find out the identity of the man, what he was doing at their remote home, and, if he is alive, what he knows about what happened to the aunt.

A very different scenario is being played out in Iceland’s capital city.  Róbert and his girlfriend Sunna are living in Reykjavik with her toddler son.  While Sunna and her sister are having lunch, the boy is abducted from his pram outside the restaurant where they are eating.  They can see Kjartan from their table, but in the minute that the women take their eyes off him, the child is taken away.

Kidnapping is almost unheard of in Iceland, and it immediately comes to the attention of the police that an incident in Róbert’s past may be the reason that Kjartan was taken.  Róbert has never divulged his secret to Sunna, its guilt and shame still all too prevalent in his mind several years after the terrible event, but the investigating detective tells him, ”…you had better come clean.  Otherwise I’ll have to tell her, in my own words, just why her son was abducted by a stranger.”

I’ve reviewed three of Ragnar Jónasson’s earlier books on this blog, so it’s obvious that I am very much a fan.  His portrayal of Iceland and its people is masterful and gives the reader an insight into how the climate and culture of the country play an important role in the lives of its people.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Ragnar Jónasson has started a new series, and like his previous “Dark Iceland” series it’s a winner.  While the first series features a male protagonist who is a detective in a small town in a remote part of the country, The Darkness introduces a female detective inspector in the capital.

Hulda Hermannsdóttir is a few months away from her much-dreaded mandatory retirement.  Being a police detective has been her entire life, and she can’t imagine what she will do when she’s no longer working.  Then she’s called into her boss’ office and given the worst possible news–her replacement has arrived and she must clear out her desk immediately.

Hulda is able to bargain for two more weeks, which is reluctantly granted, but since all her cases have already been allocated to other officers, she can only look into “cold cases,” those that were never solved at the time the crime was committed.

Determined to stay until the last possible day, Hulda begins looking into one from a year earlier, a case that she believes was never properly investigated.  Maybe, she thinks, that’s because Elena was a young asylum-seeking woman, with no command of either Icelandic or English, who apparently had no one interested enough to make a fuss over the lack of police diligence.

In Hulda’s opinion, the investigating officer had gone out of his way to portray the death as accidental.  Given the low number of murders annually in Iceland, one or two on average, and the much higher incidence of accidents, it was easy for the police to conclude that the death had been simply an unfortunate event.

When Hulda starts investigating, she meets with Elena’s solicitor and discovers that the woman was almost certainly going to be granted political asylum.  The detective gets the name of the translator whom the solicitor employed to get the facts for the asylum application; since the lawyer spoke no Russian, Elena’s only language, the lawyer needed a Russian speaker.

The translator, Bjartur, tells Hulda that he never spoke to any other member of the police and only met with Elena once or twice.  However, he tells her that Elena had confided to him that she was a prostitute, and he thinks she may have been brought to Iceland specifically for that reason.  When Hulda asks him why he never mentioned this before, he says, apologetically, “Nobody asked.”

Now certain that the initial investigation was poorly handled, Hulda is more determined than ever to find out the truth behind Elena’s untimely death.

Ragnar Jónasson is one of a group of Icelandic writers who have made that small country an important part of the current international mystery scene.  In addition to his writing, he is also the co-founder of Iceland Noir, an annual conference held in Reykjavik featuring authors in the mystery genre.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson: Book Review

I don’t know whether it’s the long snowy winters, the soothing hot springs, or something completely unknown, but the mysteries coming out of Iceland recently are uniformly excellent.

Ari Thór Arason is settling into his life in the small village of Siglufjördur in the northern part of the country.  Small as Siglufjördur is, it’s not as remote as it once was due to the recent construction of a tunnel bringing it closer to the capital Reykjavik.  But with that convenience come crimes that never had been part of village life before.

Ari Thór is one of the town’s two-man police force, consisting of a detective (Ari Thór) and a supervising inspector.  The previous inspector moved to Reykjavik and has been replaced by Herjølfur (many people in Iceland don’t have last names), although Ari Thór himself had hoped to be chosen for that job.  So there’s a bit of tension between the two men, although they are trying hard to work things out.

As Nightblind opens, Herjølfur is approaching an old, seemingly vacant house several miles from the center of Siglufjördur.  There’s something about the abandoned home that’s making him very uneasy, and he wonders if it is wise to investigate it by himself.  But he has no choice after receiving a call stating drug deals were going down there, as Ari Thór has been home ill with the flu for several days.

Herjølfur tries to dispel his fear by walking up to the house and shouting that he is from the police.  Even as he does so he’s aware he’s ignoring his feeling of something really wrong, but he continues onward toward the building.  And then there’s a fatal shot.

Meanwhile, Ari Thór is at home, still very much under the weather.  When the phone rings he expects it to be Herjølfur, asking whether he’ll be at work tomorrow.  Instead, it’s the inspector’s wife, telling Ari Thór that she’s been unable to reach her husband on his cell or the station and that he hadn’t slept at home the previous night.  Ari Thór drags himself into town, looking everywhere for his colleague, and when he’s unable to find him he is sure something really bad has happened.  And, of course, he’s right.

Nightblind is the second of five books in the author’s Dark Iceland series, all featuring Ari Thór.  In the prequel to the series, he is a young theology student.  But in the first book of the series, Snowblind, he has given up his studies and moved to Siglufjördur to think things out.  He has also moved away from his girlfriend Kristín and gotten involved with a village woman.  You can read my review of Snowblind here–  By the time Nightblind opens, five years after the events in Snowblind, he and Kristín have cautiously reconciled and are the parents of a ten-month old son.

Ari Thór wants to continue to live in Siglufjördur and become the police department’s head, but Kristín is having second thoughts about her move there.  She’s a physician at the local hospital, obviously a much smaller facility than the one she was working at in the capital, and she’s finding herself attracted to another doctor.

Ragar Jónasson has written a spellbinding novel, with deep insights into the many conflicted characters in the book.  You can read about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Iceland has come into its own in the past few years as the setting of excellent detective novels.  Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, and Quentin Bates are among the half dozen Icelandic mystery writers who have introduced their detectives over the past decade and a half.  Now Ragnar Jónasson’s novel, Snowblind, has placed him in this respected company.

Ari Thór Arason is in Reykjavik, trying to find a path to a meaningful life.  He’s been a theology student, then a philosophy student, and now he’s finishing up studies at the country’s police academy.  He’s not certain where, or even if, he’ll be offered a job, given that there are more police officers and would-be officers than there are openings in Iceland.  But to his surprise, he receives a call offering him a two-year contract in Siglufjördur, a small town so far north that it’s practically touching the Arctic Circle.

Taken a bit by surprise, Ari Thór immediately accepts, then tells his live-in girlfriend the news.  To say Kristín is upset is to put it mildly, partly because it will mean a separation for the next two years while she continues her medical studies in the capital and partly because she hadn’t known that he had applied for this job.  So Ari Thór leaves for his posting with hurt feelings on both sides, his because Kristín isn’t excited and happy for him, hers because Ari Thór hadn’t thought to consult her before applying for the job or accepting it.

Siglufjördur’s most famous citizen is Hrólfur Kristjánsson, one of the country’s most famous writers.  His novel, North of the Hills, was written during World War II and is still required reading throughout Iceland.  Hrólfur has been renting his basement apartment to a series of young people over the past several years, and he has taken a particular shine to Ugla, a young woman new to town.

Hrólfur suggests that Ugla join the Dramatic Society in town, of which he is chairman.  She is content with her life and her involvement in the Society’s play, in which she has the female lead.  But all that comes to an end just a few days before the production’s opening when the body of Hrólfur Kristjánsson is found at the foot of the auditorium’s stairs.

Snowblind is a wonderful novel.  The sense of place is perfect, allowing the reader to share Ari Thór’s feeling of claustrophobia in this remote, snowbound village, far from the woman he loves.  He also has the feeling of being an outsider, one who will never be connected to the inhabitants of this town as most of them come from families who have lived here for generations.  After all, why would any young, ambitious person come to Siglufjördur anyway?  Well, we know why Ari Thór did, but what brought Ugla there?  And how are his feelings for Kristín holding up, given the distance between them and his proximity to Ugla?

Ragnar Jónasson is an attorney and writer, an Icelander by birth.  Interestingly, he has translated fourteen Agatha Christie books into Icelandic, although he did not translate Snowblind into English.  Snowblind was written in 2010 and is followed by several other novels in the Dark Iceland Series that feature Ari Thór.  These other mysteries are now absolutely on my must-read list.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.