Ragnar Jónasson knows how to get a reader hooked. The first chapter of Night Blind finds police inspector Herjólfur following up a tip off at a house on the edge of town. It’s got all the classic ingredients in place for one hell of an opening- the house itself is not only remote and isolated but it practically hangs over a cliff, even its walls are “leaden and foreboding”, it’s dark and the rain is pouring, beams of torchlight peer out from inside. Only the edge of your seat will be needed before the chapter’s finished and it’s all too late for the inspector; “that was when he heard the shot, deafening and deadly.”
I’d been gripped by this opening chapter for close to a year before I got to read any further. It was included at the end of Jónasson’s first class début Snow Blind. The next instalment in the Dark Iceland series, Night Blind takes the reader back to the remote Siglufjörður, catching up with Ari Thór Arason five years on from the events of the first book. While it’s not essential to have done so before picking up Night Blind, I’m aware that not everyone will have read Snow Blind (and why not?!) so I’ll do my utmost not to drop any spoilers.
Ari Thór has settled somewhat since last we met- he and his girlfriend Kristín now have a young son – yet Siglufjörðu still holds plenty of discoveries for him. Preparing to return from an extended paternity leave and a battle with the flu, Ari Thór receives a concerned call from the new Inspector’s wife and soon discovers the likely-fatally wounded Herjólfur. Finding himself alone in the police department and unable to investigate the attempted murder of his boss, assistance soon arrives in the form of Ari’s former boss Tómas and we’re very quickly back into a taut, gripping and beautifully crafted murder investigation.
All the ingredients are in place for a great detective story. Yet Night Blind goes beyond the confines of any simple whodunnit. Layered within the mystery are sub-plots involving local political corruption, drug dealing, the opening up of a small community to the outside world (and its increase in crime), relationship challenges, a decades-old mystery and domestic assault; all of which Jónasson handles brilliantly, creating some genuinely memorable and affecting scenes that go beyond the slow-burning detective story of Snow Blind and show a talent that can cross genres.
The issue of domestic assault in itself is a tricky one, in a lesser-writer’s hands this could be so easily clumsily written and riddled with clichés. Not here though. Jónasson handles the subject deftly and manages to show a real ability when it comes to victim psychology. He can also write a bloody good action piece – the climatic scene between Elín and her ex had me gripped like a Jack Reacher action sequence yet with a genuine concern and sense of fear for the outcome.
Just as Snow Blind was interwoven with a narrative from the past and the question of how it connects to the present, Night Blind is interspersed with the diary entries of a young man held in a psychiatric hospital against their will for a seemingly violent incident – who is this young man and how does this relate to the shooting of Herjólfur?
The final reveal and the connection between the two is, as with Snow Blind, a gob-smacker. The number of times I thought I’d sussed the answer out only to be shut down by the next chapter is too many to count, the reveal catching me so off-guard I had to go back and wonder how I’d missed the breadcrumbs. I’m not sure I’d like to play Mr Jónasson at chess, clearly a man who thinks more moves ahead than I.
One of the most wonderful things about Night Blind to me is just how many doors are so subtly opened, how many potential focus points for other stories are gently hinted at, but leave enough of a question mark, a hook in your interest as to leave you wanting more, much more of the Dark Iceland series. There’s the “wait, what?” moments of revelations including why the Siglufjörður police department is now under-staffed, the opening up of political influences on the department – and the interfering of shady locals, characters that are begging for larger roles in scenes to come and, of course, the thought that Ari Thór does his best to ignore; with Herjólfur shot, does this mean he’ll now be in line to become Inspector?
It’s here in these sly peeks at the depth of potential in the Dark Iceland series and the sheer number of elements at play in Night Blind that Jónasson excels; the subtle crafting of the story, with it’s intricate and overlapping plotlines and detailed characters coupled with a slow and genuinely surprising, out of left-field-reveal demonstrate a supremely confident and talented writer clearly revelling in his art.
It’s rare that I get quite so invested in the personal lives of characters in crime stories (often times they’re painted almost as side-shows and cursory / obligatory scene padding) but I was genuinely gutted (perhaps as my own son is still so young), though not entirely surprised, by the departure of Kristín – yet even here Jónasson lays teasing ground-work for future developments. It’s also testament to Jónasson’s ability to create such genuine and fully-realised characters – it helps not only in keeping the reader hooked but adds a real depth and sense of community to these fictitious inhabitants of Siglufjörðu.
Snow Blind was one of my favourite reads of last year and Night Blind, an even stronger novel, will no doubt sit high atop the list of 2016’s best reads. To expand a little upon my original summary…..
….. Night Blind is a compelling, multi-layered masterpiece that breathes fresh life into the genre. Breaking beyond the confines of the traditional whodunnit, Ragnar Jónasson has delivered an intriguing, intelligent crime novel that leaves the reader open-mouthed wanting more (well, this one at least). Clearly an author to follow, he seems to have pulled off the not-so-easy task of creating a series that only gets deeper and more interesting as it goes.
A translation can make or break a book and here the translation is, again, in the very capable hands of Quentin Bates. There is no point at which Night Blind feels like it was written in anything other than English; the flow, pace and charm of the book are all captured perfectly. A cracking job.
I was delighted to take part in this Blog Tour for Night Blind and my thanks again go to Karen at Orenda Books (which has nothing but quality bearing it’s logo on the spine). Do check out the rest of the tour and today’s other, eye-opening, instalment at Mrs Peabody Investigates.