Monday, 6 August 2018


Just before Christmas, and for the first time in twenty-five years, since she was sent away to relatives in Reykjavik when she was seven, Asta Karadottir has come home, to a lonely house near the lighthouse in Kalfshamarsvik, on the north coast of Iceland. She had reason to stay away; her mother and younger sister Tinna both met their deaths in falls off the cliffs overlooking the sea; it was after Tinna’s death that Asta was sent away. Now she has come back, and two days later she lies dead in the same spot, at the foot of the same cliffs.

Ari Thor Arason gets a call from Tomas, his former mentor on the Siglurfjordur police. Now based in Reykjavik, he’s been assigned the investigation of the death, and has requested Ari Thor as his support. It makes things awkward for Ari Thor, now reconciled with his grilfriend Kristin, and with a baby due in a few weeks. The prospect of spending Christmas apart doesn’t seem a good idea to him, so he brings Kristin along, hoping things will be cleared up swiftly and cleanly.

Of course they won’t be. Ragnar Jonasson was a translator of Agatha Christie into Icelandic, and his Dark Iceland series of Ari Thor mysteries are redolent of the kinds of characters, situations and plots that define Christie. This one is basically a locked-room mystery: four suspects had dinner with Asta the night of her death, all of whom she knew as a child: the now-elderly caretakers, brother and sister Oskar and Thora, the house’s owner, Reynir, whose father was one of Iceland’s wealthiest men and who continues the tradition, and neighbour Arnor, who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with the lighthouse. Forensics soon determine that Asta did not jump, but was murdered, and that she’d had sex soon before.

From that set-up Jonasson weaves a tale of past sins coming back to haunt the present, with overtones of ghostly activity. As with Christie it’s not so much a question of clues as elimination, of digging up the motivation that reveals the killer. But what makes the story work so well is that it is really, at heart, about families—not just the problems with Asta’s family (who also worked for Reynir’s father) but Arnor and his wife who have their own difficulties, and of course Tomas, who moved to Reykjavik to save his own marriage, and the ongoing relationship of Ari Thor and Kristin. The reflections are amplified by the crime, but they are also fascinating because of the surface practicality with which Icelanders, and you might say Scandinavians in general, approach matters of the heart.

Part of what made that interesting was that I read the novel, and wrote this, in Iceland,
where you can feel that Nordic tradition, going back to the first ‘courts’ of the Icelandic ‘thing’, where the crimes punished most heavily were incest and infanticide. (Note: the former is not part of the plot). It speaks of isolated people, who keep themselves to themselves, yet are as little immune to the pains and passions as anyone else. Being in country, as it were, also makes clearly some of the fascination readers find with explanations of Icelandic life in general, unique in our Western tradition, and Jonasson does that very well indeed.

The present resolves itself satisfactorily, while the past remains ambiguous (though I prefer to take Asta’s opening memories literally as truth), and Jonasson also builds for the future, as Ari Thor himself, simple, bright and well-meaning, has much to work out. There is something slightly less than cozy about these mysteries (and if you read Jonasson’s brilliant The Darkness you’ll understand why –if not my review of it is here) yet they work because the lives of the people involved are not cozy at all. They are real, and tether the mystery to reality.

Whiteout by Ragnar Jonasson
translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books, £8.99 ISBN 9781910633892

No comments :