Thursday, 4 April 2019


It is 1987. Benedikt thinks he is in love, and has driven up with Katla to her parents' cottage up in Iceland's Westfjords. Everything is going perfect for the young couple, but days later Katla is found dead, and eventually her father is arrested, charged and convicted of her murder. At the same time, CID detective Hulda Hermansdottir is expecting a promotion, but realises quickly although she is the most experienced detective on the force, the job is going to go to Lydur, with less experience but crucially, a man. And it is Lydur who breaks the Westfjords killing.

Ten years later, Benedikt agrees to a reunion with his three best friends from that time, to mark the anniversary of Katla's death. They travel to Ellidaey, one of the uninhabited Westman Islands, with a single holiday cottage atop the high cliffs. Over the weekend, one of the four falls to her death. Hulda is sent to investigate, but it's not until she's back in Reykjavik and the body has been examined that it becomes evident she has been pushed off the cliffs, and murdered. And when the connection between the killings is recognised, Lydur, now her boss, insists on keeping his hands on her investigation. Meanwhile, Hulda is coping with the loss of her daughter, to suicide, and her husband, to a heart attack. She has travelled to the United States, trying to find the father she never knew, an American soldier who never knew he had left a pregnant woman behind in Iceland.

The Island is the second of Ragnar Jonasson's novels featuring Hulda; his 'Hidden Island' series. The first, The Darkness, was a tour de force, with one of the most audacious and moving endings I can recall. This one is a prequel, set some 15 years earlier. It is not necessary to have read the first novel to appreciate this one, and there are no spoilers that would affect your enjoyment of The Darkness. But it is interesting, that having read the first adds a certain depth to Hulda's character, which is useful because, despite the new twists to Hulda's tale, she is not as central to the crime stories as she was in the previous book.

This is not like other Scandinavian crime writers who've gone back to series characters in their earlier days—Mankell with Wallander, Jonasson's fellow Icelander Idridason with Erlendur are good examples—in an effort to write about someone who is, in effect, a new character. Jonasson is, in effect, building his protagonist in reverse; Hulda is a sympathetic character whose virtues as a cop are also her problems as a person, and who has had to battle simply to establish herself as both person and police.

Another of the fascinating angles to Jonasson's writing has been the way his 'Dark Island' series, which preceded the first Hulda novel, reflect his love of the classic whodunit form; he was a translator of Agatha Christie while still a teenager. This book could be looked at as Jonasson's version of And Then There Were None, a murder on an island with a finite number of suspects, and as in Christie its less a police procedural than a character study, though when the policeman realises something about the character, the unknown truth comes out in testimony. He doesn't cheat on the mystery; though the solution becomes fairly evident about two-thirds of the way through. But he brings in secondary plot lines that keep Hulda's investigations intriguing, and, as in the first book, he ends with multiple ironies that strike a note of sadness.

While I tore through the novel, the way I did whodunits when I was younger, I admired the writing, but wondered a bit about the translation, something I hadn't done in the earlier books. When you get cliches, especially if repeated, you wonder if phrases like 'avoided like the plague' or 'trusty car' are equally cliched in their Icelandic versions, or if the easy English equivalent is being used. Since I don't know the answer to that in Icelandic, I can't make a judgement, but it is a question. It is not something that slowed me down as I read this excellent novel, and, knowing Jonasson is moving back even earlier in Hulda's career for the next book (see my Shots interview with him here) I look forward to that one with great anticipation.

THE ISLAND by Ragnar Jonasson

Michael Joseph, £14.99, ISBN 9780718187255

Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

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