It’s hard to be objective about this one. Winterkill is the encore that the public demanded: the end of the Dark Iceland series that made such a splash for Icelandic crime fiction and for some of us personally. The series made Ragnar Jónasson a star for English-language readers. The very name of the piece, Winterkill, sounds like a Bond movie and the Dark Iceland marketing has the swagger to match. Jónasson’s been doing other work since, but this is a return to his old stamping ground, bringing some of the old cast together for a reunion. The first clue that this one’s a bit different from what came before is the announcement that this novel was written and published first in French, not in Icelandic. Iceland Noir belongs to us all these days.
Snowblind, the first of the series, was the first book to be reviewed on this site. It was also the first series of books in which a review of mine got quoted. (And if anyone thinks this sort of thing doesn’t matter – and I know it shouldn’t really – you really need to think again.) So I have a particular interest in knowing how things turn out for Police Inspector Ari Thór Arason.
Popular culture is littered with ill-advised sequels, and Jónasson, whom we know is a student of the genre, will have been as much aware as anyone. Winterkill may be a little shorter than others in the series, but this is no measly coda. There are crimes at its heart but this is a tale about things changing, and different ways in which people come to terms with it all. If Jónasson is paying tribute, it is not to Christie but to Jagger and Richards.
Everything has changed since we were last in Siglufjörður. Snowblind was written at the time of the last financial crash. Now, tourists are flocking in, ostensibly for the ski slopes and hot chocolate but almost certainly to check out Ground Zero of Iceland Noir. Ari Thór’s on-off girlfriend, Kristín, lives in Sweden with their son. Ari Thór has been musing about moving down to Reykjavík to work with his old mentor Tómas, but has festered too long, missed his chance, and will almost certainly stay in the north. He has a new sidekick, Ögmundur, who fails to respect his elders. It’s a convincing generational shift.
With its new, winter-proof tunnels to the rest of the island, Siglufjörður is no longer the ideal setting for a locked-room mystery, even if Jónasson promises, and delivers, a storm worthy of the name. Suspects come and go. We as readers get to think the worst of just about everyone bar the hot chocolate vendor. But this is not a simple whodunit. With a couple of almighty twists, Jónasson confounds our expectations of what the central crime was in the first place. He asks us to think about power, what it is to feel trapped, and what it means to call people to account for their actions. Some of these themes, rightly, are ones we’ve been invited to think about throughout this series.
This time, though, Jónasson goes a bit further. He really wants to end the series on a fitting note. So he encourages us to think about what it means to deal with things and move on. Whether it’s Ari Thór making decisions about his career or whether to try again with Kristín, Ugla making a career change, Thorleifur senior and junior forging a new life, Hersir finding a new use for the old school room or historic Icelanders emigrating, everyone is trying to make the best of their situation. Not everyone succeeds and some of the outcomes are violent and distressing. But as a goodbye to this series it’s beautiful and fitting. To his readers, Jónasson gives the same message as he gives his characters. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you find you get what you need.
Thanks to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation and to Orenda Books for the review copy.