The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson
Publisher - Penguin
Published - Out Now
Price - £12.99 Hardcover
A young woman is found dead on a remote Icelandic beach.
She came looking for safety, but instead she found a watery grave.
A hasty police inspector determines her death as a suicide…
When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, she is told she can investigate one last case of her choice – and she knows which one.
What she discovers is far darker than suicide…and no one is telling Hulda the whole story.
When her own colleagues try to put the brakes on her investigation, Hulda has just days to discover the truth. A truth she will risk her own life to find.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when a police officer in fiction is near retirement they rarely are just going to get the carriage clock and vouchers. In this tale from Ragnar Jonasson (translated by Victoria Cribb) we see a familiar tale this time told in Iceland a land of remote lava fields and snow where people could easily vanish and combined with tales of secrets and loss. A noir tale with a very cold ending to match the setting.
In many ways this book is a character study with Hulda at the centre. She lost her husband long ago; has no close relatives and has been largely living for the job as a capable investigator. She has perhaps kept retirement to one side but suddenly finds her less than helpful Boss has decided she can go in two weeks rather than the several months she expected. Deciding upon one apparently cold case she moves into finding out how a Russian asylum seeker ended up drowned on a beach. Once she finds Elena had been told she was granted asylum the day before she vanished and then must quickly unpiece the real story a careless colleague ignored.
I really enjoyed the unravelling the mysteries of Hulda who we see in a variety of flashbacks had a quite hard childhood and the circumstances leading to the break up of her actual family have made her in many ways a trapped person. Tied to the job, eating fast food and ignoring a potential new relationship it’s refreshing to have a book focused on a 65-year-old woman rather than the usual anti-hero men crime in the past have focused on. Importantly she is not at all perfect and one theme in the book is that her battles with her childhood and the ingrained sexism of the police force mean her isolation and stresses have made her prone to rushing and making mistakes. She has a keen sense of justice but has in these last weeks started to react which means she puts herself in all sorts of firing lines.
Another impressive part of the book is the feel for Iceland. Its not simply a geographical joy it’s a place people live and die. While murder is unusual (one or two a year) there is a sense of something darker under the service. The book raises themes of how asylum seekers are treated and ignored. Few recall Elena she was just a cog in the machine that spits people out. There are also glimpses of more conservative times when a child born out of wedlock was a disgrace and mothers could find themselves separated from children with their families’ blessing. It’s a darker side to Iceland than many may have expected and adds a bitter noir flavour to the tale.
My one issue is that the crime itself and how this gets resolved I felt gets lost in the character study of Hulda. It felt sometimes more like a short story or novella where I think the detective is often far more interesting than the crime and in the last third of the book it came across as rushed reaching a very disturbing conclusion. Its memorable but never comforting. This is a crime tale with a focus on the consequences of secrets and its starkness will not be for all. There will not be a clean resolution but a reminder that our past can cause us great harm. Worth a read for those who enjoy noir at its darkest.