Ragnar Jónasson is back. The Mist rounds off the Hidden Iceland trilogy which explores, in reverse, the life and career of detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir. And it rounds off a week in which we’ve explored the keeping of secrets (Fallen Angels) and Christmas crime as pure escapism and entertainment (Murder in the Snow). At the end of the novel, once everything has been wrapped up, Jónasson gives us an author’s note in which he shouts out to Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. But, as usual, Jónasson has used his encyclopaedic understanding of what crime fiction can do to provide us with something which is to my eyes quite new.
Erla and Einar live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Let’s be clear about what nowhere means. They have intermittent radio. No TV. Power cuts. They have to do their Christmas shopping in November. They may be stuck on their farm for months at a time. Einar regards the farm as his birth right but also his duty. For Erla it’s a prison. They are largely hidden from the rest of society, but Erla’s feelings about her life are hidden from Einar.
The blurb on the back of the book tells us straight away that it’s bad news when they open the door to an apparently lost traveller a day or so before Christmas. This spoiler helps Jónasson dial up the tension at the same time as he dials down the temperature. As visitor Leó drops hints that he isn’t who he seems, the isolation seems unbearable. Jónasson has built an entire series of novels (Dark Iceland) on his ability to create a chilling atmosphere in which the weather provides as much menace as bad people but here he winds it up a further notch. Here it seems very clear: geographical isolation is not safe. And as it is this isolation that has led to Erla’s mental ill-health, perhaps bright lights could have been her salvation?
Problem is, we have two contrasting plots to deal with. Hulda and her family are based in the comparatively urban centre of Álftanes (population 2,500). They can go for burgers every now and again. But the town is no haven: the family is engulfed by a crisis almost in plain sight but to the extent that it is not in plain sight it is behind closed doors.
And Hulda is investigating the disappearance of Unnur in the middle of her gap year. She is from the metropolis of Garðabær (population 17,000). But she wants to find herself and in so doing she hides herself away. Would she have gone missing if she had told her family what she was doing and where she was going?
The answer is: probably, because if there is a message in this novel, it’s that we are, for all our agency and free will, at the mercy of the elements and of circumstances that we may neither recognise nor understand. In considering the main case, Hulda notes that
Life wasn’t that simple; the line between good and evil wasn’t that well defined.
One way in which Jónasson helps us feel an affinity with his characters is that to a large extent the bad things happen off-camera. Within the narrative itself, violence is committed as much by the weather as by perpetrators. Instead we see the main cast members struggling to thrive or survive – and the Christmas backdrop adds a certain poignancy.
Hulda herself is a great creation: she is not the mistress of her fate. She has a sense of her destiny as a detective but suffers from basic sexism in the police department, likes her immediate family unit but not her wider family, and we sense that she is in many ways uneasy. We are, too, throughout this book. And we know that Jónasson is trying to tell us that hidden truths are around us. They are not just for Iceland, nor for Christmas.
You can get The Mist and other Ragnar Jónasson titles from the Cafethinking bookshop.
Thanks to Sriya Varadharajan for the invitation to take part in the blog tour, and to Penguin Books for the review copy.
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