June 2010. Reykjavik is still recovering from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull the previous month, the atmosphere somewhat tainted. Reporter Ísrún fears that this will be just another routine day for her, knowing that her boss, Ívar, will assign her yet another mundane report, anything to prevent her from challenging him for promotion. And yet when she hears of a dead body found in the north of the island, in the town of Skagafjörður, Ísrún is determined to be the one to look into it. Leaving Reykjavik to investigate a new angle on her own, Ísrún has her own reasons for wanting to look into the murder, little knowing that it is an investigation which will lead to a surprising discovery and a heart breaking admission.
Ari Thór is still working as a cop in the northern Icelandic town of Siglufjörður. Two years out of police college, his relationship with both Kristin and Ugla are over, and his focus is purely on his career. When Tómas, is called in to assist on the investigation into the murdered man found in Skagafjörður, and with his other junior officer Hlynur currently losing his edge on the job, he turns to Ari Thór for help.
In truth, all three officers are distracted. Tómas by his wife’s absence, having moved to Reykjavik to study; Ari Thór by his desire to win Kristin back and his obsession with her possible relationship with someone in Akureyri; and Hlynur with a guilty secret from his past which has come back to haunt him.
In an increasingly frustrating investigation, neither man can possibly know what a dark turn this case will take. With key witnesses in the investigation hiding truths from the police, and the victim himself having a seemingly murky past, nothing is quite as it seems. And yet, unknown to them all, an innocent victim’s life hangs in the balance. As the ash clouds darken the sky over once Siglufjörður more, every minute they waste brings them one step closer to having more blood on their hands.
‘Black Out’ is the third instalment in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series. Set two years after the first story, ‘Snow Blind’, this starts to bridge the gap in Ari Thór’s story between this and ‘Night Blind‘. We catch up with Ari Thór when all of his personal life seems to be falling apart. Separated from Kristin after having confessed to his fling with Ugla, and being ignored by Ugla after finally admitting to having had a girlfriend, Ari Thór is at a personal low. Work is all he has. And what a case he is faced with.
This is a complex story, so many threads weaving together to make what is a real who-dunnit of a mystery. The story is darker than the previous two novels, the themes involved very topical and sensitive in nature. I won’t say too much as it may spoil the plot but there is an element of abuse running throughout, although more implied than gratuitously described, and also of one of the most common and enduring criminal plagues of modern times, human trafficking.
As always, Jónasson has created a claustrophobic, almost suffocating sense of atmosphere, not simply because of its timing among the volcanic eruptions of 2010. I remember that time well. It almost stopped my trip to Vietnam. Even on the tail end of it travel wise, I can only imagine what the impact was like in Iceland itself, the threat of a potential second, more devastating eruption from neighbouring Katla always in the mind of those who live there. Through ‘Black Out’ you do get a sense of this, the way in which the darkness envelopes everyone and everything in spite of what should have been a hot summer of long days and short nights, adding an extra level of menace to an already dark story. And creating the perfect, oppressive setting, while still giving the reader a sense of the beauty that makes up the Icelandic landscape, is what Jónasson does so well. This story is no different.
We learn a little more of Hlynur in this story too. He has a chequered past, one which he would rather forget but one which someone, somewhere, is determined that he cannot escape from. It is somewhat of a surprise, but then perhaps explains his motivations and actions in ‘Snow Blind’ where he always sought to expose the bad and protect those who he felt were innocent or abused in some way. It is hard to know exactly how I felt about Hlynur by the end of the novel, sympathetic or apathetic, but at least, I understood him.
The narrative moves from past to present, each aside informing the action more and building a gradual understanding and tension. When the true consequences of the murder become clear at the start of part two, the sense of urgency for the reader picks up, although the investigation remains frustratingly slow for the police who know nothing of what the reader is privy to. This is a brilliant twist, bringing the reader into an exclusive club, understanding what is at stake but unable to do anything other than will someone to stand up and tell the truth for once. And then Ari Thór’s actions towards the end, leaving the investigation when it is so close to resolution and running Kristin instead, stand to surprise you once again, and to make you wonder if this is another loose thread which will be tied off in the remaining novels.
I am thoroughly enjoying the Dark Iceland series. Stunning setting and imagery, tight and twisting plotting, and absolutely engaging, if somewhat moody characters, in truly gripping stories told by someone who has a clear passion and love of his characters and his country. Yet another brilliant translation by Quentin Bates, and the third book I have listened to on audiobook, it has made long journeys to Scotland and back simply fly by. I absolutely cannot wait for the final books in the series, and yet I say that with a certain amount of trepidation as, when they get here, this fabulous journey will end. I’m not sure I’m ready to think about that just yet.
A chilling, dark and atmospheric 5 stars.
‘Black Out’ by Ragnar Jónasson was published by Orenda Books on 15th July 2016 and is available to purchase here: