Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson, translated by Quentin Bates, book review

Jónasson brings his distinctive blend of crime fiction to English-speaking readers

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Iceland has a population of little more than 300,000, but it's the most literary nation on earth. According to the BBC, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book. Crime fiction is particularly popular – its sales are double those of any of its Nordic neighbours, and Icelandic authors like Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Siguroardóttir have become international bestsellers.

Now Ragnar Jónasson brings his own distinctive blend of crime fiction to English-speaking readers. His first novel transplants the old-fashioned Mayhem Parva murder mystery to the edge of the Arctic Circle and then encourages it to sprout in unexpectedly existential directions.

The central character of Snowblind is a troubled rookie cop, Ari Thór, whao has been posted to Siglufjörour, a depressed fishing community in the north of the country where everyone knows everyone else. Ari Thór leaves unfinished business behind him in Reykjavík in the shape of his medical student girlfriend and his own interrupted training for the priesthood.

Siglufjörour is in the grip of winter. The town is placid enough on the surface, but its calm is soon ruffled by the apparently accidental death of a leading citizen, a cantankerous grand old man of Icelandic literature. This may or may not be connected with feuding at the local amateur dramatic society, where passions of more than one sort run high and everyone seems to have a secret.

Ari Thór becomes increasingly friendly with one of the actors, an attractive young woman fleeing a tragedy in her past. Meanwhile, the reader learns that one woman is facing a violent intruder in her own home, and another woman has been brutally attacked, stripped half-naked and left for dead in her snow-covered garden.

The weather worsens. An avalanche blocks the only tunnel leading through the mountains to the rest of the country, trapping the inhabitants in their town. As one character says: "It's like the walls are closing in on you when the weather's like this …"

On the face of it, Snowblind is a gigantic locked-room mystery, an investigation into murder and other crimes within a closed society with a limited number of suspects. (Ragnar Jónasson understands this as well as anyone – he has translated 14 of Agatha Christie's novels into Icelandic.) However, this merely serves as a framework for a narrative that skips from viewpoint to viewpoint, revealing the interlocking lives of its characters. It's a technique that can seem artificial and a little confusing. But Jónasson plays fair with the reader – his clues are traditional and beautifully finessed – and he keeps you turning the pages. Snowblind is morally more equivocal than most traditional whodunnits, and it offers alluring glimpses of darker, and infinitely more threatening horizons.