Book Review: Whiteout

Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English by Orenda Books. At the beginning of this instalment the protagonist, policeman Ari Thór Arason, is once again working in the small fishing town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. His former boss, Tómas, has moved to Reykjavik where he has joined the city force’s Serious Crimes Department. Neither is completely happy in their roles.

When the body of a young woman, Ásta Káradóttir, is discovered beneath cliffs near the deserted village of Kálfshamarsvík, Tómas feels he must prove himself to his new colleagues by uncovering how she came to die. He eschews their offers of help preferring to call on Ari Thór for assistance. Together they travel to the scene of the investigation, in a remote, northern location which has a chequered history and harbours many secrets. Ásta’s mother and sister were found dead at the same spot more than twenty years before. The policemen question if each of these deaths could have been accident, suicide or something more sinister.

In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. The cliffs are located by a large house, a lighthouse and a nearby farm, with little else close by. The residents of these properties have barely changed in the decades over which the story is set. Parents have died, their children grown, but few have moved on.  Although Ásta was sent to live with a distant aunt when she was seven years old, shortly after her sister’s death, those who knew her as a child remain.

Ari Thór and Tómas set about questioning their potential witnesses and suspects. An elderly brother and sister, Oskar and Thora, live in the basement of the big house and work as housekeeper and caretaker. The house is owned by Reynir who inherited the property and a successful business from his father and spends time there regularly. Living on the nearby farm is Arnor who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with his duties at the lighthouse. All were close by at the times of each of the three tragic deaths.

Post-mortem examination shows that Ásta had sex shortly before she died yet the men deny involvement. Her body was found on rocks but there is a possible head injury from another cause. Her mother and sister’s deaths were officially regarded as suicide and accident. Rumours float to the surface that Ásta, when a child, may have witnessed more than has been acknowledged. The policemen’s questions bring to light historic behaviours that those involved sought to suppress. Then another body is discovered within the big house.

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas which everyone is eager to celebrate for a variety of reasons. To avoid problems encountered in previous years, Ari Thór has brought his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Kristin, along with him to the hotel where they are staying. The author does not introduce plot threads without reason. Knowing this adds to the tension.

I was eager to review this book as I have followed Ari Thór through each of his adventures to date and grown fond of this young man trying so desperately to do something worthwhile with his life alongside creating the happy family of his imagination. He resents having missed out on this himself. His flaws are not of excess but rather a struggle to deal with his past and accept Kristen’s individuality. The ghosts haunting all the characters are the secrets they have tried to bury.

The writing is effortlessly captivating with a brooding quality that ensures plot direction remains actively unsettling. The reader’s eagerness to understand how and why is gradually rewarded. The denouement is accomplished yet retains a degree of ambiguity.

An entertaining read from a master storyteller that is crime fiction yet avoids the genres sometimes cliched predictability. I hope this is not the final book in what is a fabulous series. Highly recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher. 

This post is a stop on the Whiteout Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.  

Whiteout is published by Orenda Books.

 

Book Review: Faithless

Faithless, by Kjell Ola Dahl (translated by Don Bartlett), is a tenebrous and intense crime thriller offering classic Nordic Noir. Set in Oslo it features a team of detectives investigating a suspected thief, one of whose contacts leads them to a series of murders. There is a potential conflict of interest when an old friend of one of the detectives becomes a suspect. Alongside is the case of a missing international student who arrived in Norway and almost immediately disappeared.

Detective Frølich and Inspector Gunnarstranda have appeared in four previous English translations of the author’s novels but this was my introduction to his writing. The story worked well standalone.

When the tale opens Frølich is on a stakeout. A woman visits the subject of his surveillance and he is instructed to apprehend her when she leaves. The woman, Veronika Unset, is arrested but subsequently released. This sets in motion a series of incidents which culminate in a death.

Frølich discovers that Unset is engaged to be married to an old schoolfriend he had once been close to but hasn’t seen in many years. He is wary of renewing the acquaintance but decides that enough time has passed and attends a party the man invites him to. Here he meets and is attracted to Janne Smith, who complicates his ability to do his job impartially even further.

Lena, another member of the team, is investigating the missing student. Lena is in a destructive relationship with a colleague which she is struggling to maintain. The recent murder forces Frølich to put this missing persons case on the back burner, until he discovers that there are common elements and is drawn to become involved against orders.

The personal lives of the detectives, victims and suspects are intertwined with these investigations. A potential link to an historic murder in another part of the country provides new leads but also further complications. The detectives suspect they may be dealing with a serial killer, and to secure proof they are willing to put themselves in danger.

The writing throughout is intense and controlled with the many threads providing the reader with a wide range of suspicions before the final reveals. A darkly entertaining thriller that kept me guessing to the end.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Faithless Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Faithless is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Cursed

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Cursed, by Thomas Enger (translated by Kari Dickson), is the fourth book in the author’s Henning Juul series of crime thrillers. In this instalment the protagonist is still reeling from the death of his six year old son following an arson attack on his flat. Henning is on leave from his job as a journalist and is using the time to do what he can to track down the perpetrators. There is a lot of backstory here which I assume is covered in more detail in the earlier books.

Henning’s ex-partner, Nora Klemetsen, is approached by the husband of an old college friend who has gone missing. Helga Hellberg failed to return from a three week retreat in Italy which her husband subsequently discovered she didn’t attend. Nora, another journalist, agrees to investigate and is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding the wealthy Hellberg family which goes back decades.

Nora has personal issues to contend with. Her new partner, Iver Gundersen, who is a colleague of Henning’s, has not responded well to recent revelations. Nora and Henning still have feelings for each other, not least an understanding of their shared grief. When Nora approaches Henning and then Iver for support she finds they both remain distant, struggling with what she has shared. As a result she opts to approach the Hellbergs alone.

Henning’s state of mind leads him to take serious risks in his quest for information. He discovers that his life is still threatened although he is unsure why. The widow of Tore Pulli, a supposed criminal who died in prison just as Henning proved he was not guilty of the crimes for which he was incarcerated, may be able to offer some clues. Tore may also have had links to the Hellbergs although the murky details are unlikely to be willingly shared by any of his acquaintances.

The action alternates between the investigations being carried out by Nora and Henning. When they eventually share findings, and potential overlaps are recognised, progress is made. This puts them both in danger leading to a dramatic denouement.

Unusually for such a taut thriller there are many detailed descriptions of people and street scenes which do not always appear relevent to the plot but do help place the reader in the various settings. Typically of Nordic Noir the characters’ personal lives are as changeable and dark as the weather. Partnerships are distant and children, even when loved, grow up feeling resentful.

The writing is engaging and the varied cast of characters well presented although I was somewhat surprised at how willing some were to talk to journalists who are more usually presented in fiction as vultures. There is good in the bad and bad in the good which adds to the intrigue and unprectability. The short chapters encouraged me to keep reading just one more.

A tightly written thriller that had me puzzling the clues throughout as the plot threads were untangled and then woven into place. This is an entertaining and supenseful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Cursed Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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Cursed is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Blackout

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Blackout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the third book in the author’s Dark Iceland series. It is set in the time period between the previous two – Snowblind (which I review here) and Nightblind (which I review here). In this installment it is summer in Iceland, although the south of the island is suffering the effects of a volcanic eruption which has blanketed the area in an ash cloud.

The story opens with the discovery of a mutilated body outside a partially built house near the northern town of Skagafjörður. The victim’s legal residence is listed as Siglufjörður so this town’s police officers, Ari Thór and Tomás, are asked to assist in the suspected murder investigations. The third officer on their team, Hlynur, feels overlooked when his younger and less experienced colleague is given precedence by their boss. Hlyner’s increasing absent mindedness, due to persistent and threatening emails, has been affecting the quality of his work.

Ari Thór and Tomás travel around Iceland interviewing the dead man’s acquaintances. They are not the only ones doing so. A television news reporter, Isrun, is also taking a close interest in the case. She travels north in the hope of uncovering secrets that will enable her to regain the respect of her colleagues in the newsroom. All three soon discover that the man had been involved in shady dealings, the details of which are being kept secret by his acquaintances for a shocking reason.

Ari Thór is often abrupt and bad tempered. He is missing his former girlfriend, Kristen. Tomás is also lonely and contemplating moving south to rejoin his wife. Leaving Siglufjörður, where he has lived for so long, would be a wrench. The officers personal preoccupations distract them from reaching out to help Hlyner as he sinks deeper into a mire of his own making.

The writing jumps around in time and place offering many threads which coalesce as the denouement approaches. There are significant events from dark pasts to recount, the isolation and austerity of the land seeming to seep into its resident’s psyches. The style of the prose reflects this. It is succinct and spartan, atmospheric with elements of stark beauty.

This is another enjoyable installment in an excellent crime fiction series which is gripping but never formulaic. The reader is transported to Iceland where they become caught up in the twisty tale. Ari Thór is on form as the prickly yet likeable young protagonist. I am already looking forward to reading his next adventure when Rupture is released early next year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: I’m Travelling Alone

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I’m Travelling Alone, by Samuel Bjork (translated by Charlotte Barslund), introduces the reader to Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, former members of a special unit in the Norwegian police department’s Violent Crimes Section. When the story opens Krüger is living alone on a remote island property and planning to take her own life. Munch has been dispatched to try to talk her into rejoining the unit following the disturbing murder of a child, an investigation that he hopes will also facilitate his return from the backwater he was banished to following an as yet undisclosed incident in their past.

Krüger is skilled at spotting clues that others miss, forming theories and associations that have enabled her to solve many complex crimes. When she notes that the murdered child has the number 1 scratched onto a finger nail she suggests that further murders will follow. This proves to be correct. A game of cat and mouse ensues as the reformed team race against time to work out motive and find suspects. Just as they are finally beginning to make headway it gets personal. Concerns are raised that neither Krüger nor Munch will be capable of the impartiality required to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The plot offers many threads for the reader to ponder: pre-school children washed and dressed as dolls found hanging from trees; a mysterious religious retreat created in woodland; potential clues presented as codes and riddles. It is not just children who are murdered but also animals. There is a possible link to a care home for the elderly.

I found the story telling slow to start. The background offered was of interest but the measured pace lacked the tension I have come to expect from crime thrillers. I wondered if the tale would work better on television where the brooding, Norwegian landscapes could add to the suspense.

The characters were as I would expect in Nordic fiction although the protagonists had irritating quirks that were repeatedly mentioned. Krüger was forever taking a lozenge, Munch lighting another cigarette. When the pace finally picked up these mentions ceased, as did the persistant reminder that they were functioning on too little sleep. My attention was not sufficiently diverted by what action there was to ignore this manner of writing.

The final hundred or so pages pulled together all of the carefully crafted threads and it was then a thrilling race to the denouement. There were twists that I had not guessed and satisfying endings. The members of the crime team had become three dimensional and I cared about how things would pan out for several of the supporting cast.

Although newly released in English translation, the book is already an international bestseller in at least half a dozen European countries. This is the proposed first in a sequence of novels featuring Krüger and Munch. Perhaps the slower opening pace was felt necessary as a stage setter for the series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Snowblind

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Snowblind, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the first in a series of crime thrillers set in Siglufjörður, which is a small fishing town on the northern coast of Iceland. The location is claustrophobic in so many ways and this is admirably evoked in the writing. Due to its isolated position inclement weather can shut the town off for days at a time. In winter the sun stays behind the mountains and snow falls relentlessly adding to the gloom. With just over a thousand residents, many of whom have lived there for most of their lives, it appears that everyone knows everyone else’s business.

The protagonist, Ari Thór Arason, arrives from Reykjavik to take up his first posting as a policeman. He parted from his girlfriend under a cloud as he had not consulted her about his new job so far away from the home they had planned to make. Having been told by his new boss, Tómas, that “Nothing ever happens here” it comes as a shock when, within a couple of months of his arrival, an elderly writer falls to his death and a young woman is found lying half-naked, bleeding and unconscious in the snow.

Ari Thór is dragged into the heart of a community which harbours secrets and treats questions from strangers with suspicion. As tension mounts the young, rookie policeman struggles to cope with the unremitting snowstorms and darkness. Lonely and on edge he makes a life threatening mistake in his attempt to bring a killer to justice.

There is so much about this book which I enjoyed. Ari Thór is a refreshingly believable crime fighter with his youthful errors of judgement, his struggles to fit in and to survive the oppressive environment. The plot twists and turns as the investigation uncovers a plethora of old deceits and current intrigues. Festering wounds are opened spilling secrets as dark as the days, as shocking as the blood on the suffocating snow.

There are two more books promised in this series and I am now eager to read them. Although the denouement wound up this case the characters have a depth which offers more. Ragnar Jónasson has created an original voice for Nordic Noir. I would recommend that readers take a deep breath and immerse themselves in his world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

 

Book Review: Wolf Winter

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Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck, is a haunting tale of isolation, superstition and murder set in a remote, mountain community in 1717 Swedish Lapland. Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea have moved to the Blackåsen Mountain from their native Finland hoping to escape their past. It is not to be.

Whilst out herding goats with her sister, Frederika comes upon the mutilated body of one of the other settlers. His violent death is put down to a wild animal attack but, having examined his remains, Maija will not accept this verdict. Throughout the course of a particularly harsh season, a wolf winter, she stubbornly questions her neighbours about what preceded the man’s demise. It seems that everyone has secrets.

Overseeing the scattered community is a Church determined to suppress the Shamanism which Maija eschews but which still lurks beneath the surface on the brooding mountain. It is unclear what is real and what is conjured up through fear but it cannot be spoken of. Suspected witches will be tried and condemned.

The story is told from three perspectives: Maija, Frederika and a priest who is also new to the area. The prose is sparse, evoking the cold and bleak atmosphere of the setting and the challenges of staying alive in such a wild and isolated place.

As well as portraying the storms and darkness of the day to day lives of the settlers the author explores relationships with a sometimes uncomfortable realism. She skilfully presents Maija’s feelings towards her husband who has changed so much since they first met; the increasing distance between Maija and the teenage Frederika; Frederika’s burgeoning interest in a young Lapp man; the conflicts felt by the priest in his encounters with two of his female flock.

The layers and twists in this tale make for powerful reading. As secrets are uncovered the resultant truths precipitate reactions which must then be dealt with by all. The climax of the tale does not disappoint.

Beautifully written with a clear and haunting voice, this story takes the reader into the heart of a dark and challenging way of life. The cold seeps in along with the story. Wrap up well and enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.