by Ragnar Jónasson (Orenda Books)
TWENTY-FIVE years ago a woman fell off a cliff in a remote Icelandic hamlet. Not long after, her five-year-old daughter suffered the same fate. Now, after a long period away, the remaining sister has returned to the village where her family was torn apart, only for her body to be discovered on the same rocks two days before Christmas.
This is the fifth novel in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series starring young detective Ari Thor, although it works perfectly well as a standalone thriller.
Jónasson has made no attempt to disguise his admiration for Agatha Christie and this taut, precision-tooled whodunnit shares several classic Christie tropes: a secluded house, a shortlist of possible suspects — including an elderly brother and sister, and a wealthy businessman — several deeply buried secrets and a general interest in the more desolate, vengeful depths of the human condition.
Yet Jónasson is also a master of atmosphere and, as one of the potential suspects is bumped off the day before Christmas Eve, you can almost feel the snow clouds drawing in, extinguishing the light.
This is a gripping thriller full of sly misdirection and slow, drip-feed reveal but it’s also a subtle portrait of contemporary Iceland, rocked by financial instability and where, away from the big towns, tiny communities cling to life. Not much festive cheer, then, and certainly Jónasson is interested in what festers beneath in the pockets of unhappiness many of his characters live in. The prose is stark and minimal, the mood dank and frost-tipped.
It’s also bleakly brilliant, although perhaps best read with a warming shot of whisky by your side.
Book Chat: Get involved
White Out is the latest top pick for Metro Book Chat — our online book club where we collate the latest news and reviews. And we want to hear from you — share your thoughts on Ragnar Jónasson’s eerie whodunnit by logging on to facebook.com/metrobookchat; by doing so, you’ll be in with a chance to win next month’s book in our prize draw. To get the juices flowing in the meantime, take inspiration from our discussion points below.
■ Compared with other crime novels, White Out is hardly speedy. Does its slowness increase the all-round puzzle-solving pleasure… or make the whole thing drag?
■ If you’re after a moody setting to your thriller, you can’t go wrong with Iceland. But which aspects of the landscape really shivered your timbers?
■ The detective Ari Thor is about to have a baby with his wife. Does this make us like him just that little bit more?
■ Jónasson is a pretty stark, minimalist writer. Could this have done with a richer writing style? And how does Jónasson compare with our very own Agatha Christie? Get thinking — and sharing!
Three more festive chillers
Sleep No More by PD James (Faber)
Known mainly for her Adam Dalgliesh crime novels, PD James also excelled at the short story and this collection of six brought together for the first time follows a previous collection, The Mistletoe Murder And Other Stories, published last year. Each of these eminently satisfying shorts will feed fans of PD James’s love for the nastier side of life but some also nod to the golden-age style of crime writing, none more so than The Murder Of Santa Claus in which the Lord Of The Manor meets a sticky end while delivering presents very early on Christmas morning in 1939.
Portrait Of A Murderer by Anne Meredith (British Library Classics)
The British Library’s publishing imprint has been doing sterling work resurrecting crime novels from the annals of history and this latest example marks their 50th publication. First printed in 1933, it’s by a writer highly regarded by Dorothy L Sayers and is unusual in that it reveals the murderer early on. The story itself involves a classic set-up — six offspring meet each December at the house of their father, who after one such gathering is found dead. You read most of the novel through the killer’s eyes and the result is a riveting, uncomfortable encounter with a murderous mind.
The Darkest Day by Håkan Nesser (Mantle)
You might know the Swedish novelist Håkan Nesser for his Inspector Van Veeteren crime novels. Here, in the first of a new series, he introduces a new, much younger and metaphysically minded detective, Inspector Barbarotti. The Hermansson family has gathered in the Swedish town of Kymlinge in the depths of December to celebrate the birthdays of father and daughter. Come the end of the weekend, two members of the party are dead. The plot is fiendishly complex but Nesser is as sure-footed as a mountain goat on ice. Just the thing for a winter afternoon.