Snowblind | Ragnar Jónasson | 2015 | Orenda Books | 259p | Review copy | Buy the book
Siglufjörður has all the appearance of an idyllically quiet and remote fishing village in Northern Iceland. There is no crime, the lives of its villagers peacefully following the pattern of the seasons. But when violence, hand in hand with the black cold winter, visits the village, leaving a young woman bloody in the ice, and the sole access to the village in winter, a tunnel, is sealed off by an avalanche, the walls of Siglufjörður begin to close in. For Ari Thór Arason, a new arrival in the community, the claustrophobia, isolation and the darkness are particularly difficult. This is Ari’s first posting as a policeman. It has taken him far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik into a village that for all its outward friendliness is wary of strangers. When a famous author (a member of the village’s amateur dramatics society) falls to his death in the local theatre, Ari maintains that it was no accident and that a killer stalks Siglufjörður, this crime linked to the other that has horrified the village. This is an unpopular conclusion. Everyone knows everyone in this small village – everyone will know the murderer.
Snowblind is as atmospheric a murder mystery that you could find. Reminiscent of the classic whodunnits of writers such as Agatha Christie, it presents its evidence within a confined and isolated community, its number of suspects is small, the red herrings will be numerous and there will be several false leads as the determined detective digs his way to the truth. Snowblind is a novel about a group of villagers who have chosen to live in an environment that for much of the year is hostile to life, they regard with care the outside world from which Ari has come. They are welcoming and friendly, enjoying contact with an incomer, they entertain themselves through the dark months with amateur dramatics and other projects that tighten the social ties. But Siglufjörður is a village with as many secrets as there are people, which is not surprising in such a small place where people live almost on top of each other through the long Arctic winter night. And when the avalanche traps the village it traps a killer inside it.
Ari Thór is not only the detective in the novel, he’s also our guide to Siglufjörður. He is a stranger just like us and through him we meet the men and women of the village, most of whom provide a warm welcome to this young man in their midst. But this narrative is interspersed with a different voice, that of a woman in extreme danger and fear. This voice is our reminder that time may be running out for someone inside the village. Much of the novel, though, is a beautifully-written and insightful portrait of a community, gradually revealing the secret lives of the villagers, their relationships, their hopes, desires and fears, even, in one or two cases, their terror.
Ragnar Jónasson’s emphasis throughout is on social drama, a focus that is reflected in a village that appears full of authors, screenwriters and actors. This contrasts perfectly with the dark frozen wilderness outside, just as the madness of the killer contrasts with the community’s refinement. It is this insight, combined with very fine prose, which is the most successful part of Snowblind. The delicacy and thoroughness with which the lives of the villagers are probed means that the pace of the murder mystery is secondary. Having read the blurb on the cover, I was surprised to discover that the avalanche, a crucial point in the novel, takes place almost halfway through. The story is only very slowly revealed. There are also a fair few convenient coincidences, no doubt an inevitable consequence of the small group of suspects, and so the conclusion to the mystery was less of a surprise than I expected.
However, Snowblind is one of the most atmospheric whodunnits that I’ve read, standing out for the author’s elegant prose and insight as well as the novel’s immensely strong sense of place. The translator Quentin Bates is also to be commended. I’m looking forward very much to the second novel in the Dark Iceland series – Nightblind.