Collusion and confusion at the end of the world. Ragnar Jónasson specialised in locked room thrillers in the style of the Golden Age of crime writing, but in The Girl Who Died there are some extra twists. We’ve loved the Dark Iceland and Hidden Iceland series, and this new standalone offering brings us both dark and hidden. Almost all the action takes place in Skálar, which you can find, alone and forsaken on the north eastern tip of Iceland – even though in reality the village was long abandoned by the the 1980s in which this novel is set. Fictional Skálar is rocked when its close-knit community of fewer than ten adults is visited by a short-term newcomer and a ghost from its past.
Actually, there’s more than one ghost, for The Girl Who Died relies strongly on a blurring between reality and the imagination. Some of that blurring may come from the strong alcohol intake of the protagonist, but in a parallel narrative about someone stitched up for murder, Jónasson provides a strong contrast between how one can be gaslit by an isolated and close community and how, through the use of solitary confinement the police can play with your mind such that you are no longer sure of your innocence.
He’s known for his police procedurals but this time Jónasson steers almost completely clear of law enforcers. Everything in the main narrative is seen from the perspective of Una, the thirty-something newcomer who sees a year in Skálar teaching its two young children as the jump-start she needs in her life. It isn’t really clear how she holds it all together with not much more than red wine for company: the welcome she receives in the village is as icy as its surroundings and as time goes on she’s trapped physically, emotionally and intellectually. The villagers don’t get a sympathetic portrayal: only one, perhaps two, of them are welcoming: the others are suspicious and some are openly hostile. There are all-village meetings to which Una isn’t invited and it’s clear that there’s a secret that the community is petrified she’s stumbling towards uncovering. The lack of – Una aside – three-dimensional characters, though, does mean that there is a shortage of moving parts against which the reader can guess the outcomes. But when the villagers say, repeatedly, that they don’t want the police looking through their affairs because they can sort their own problems out, they mean it.
This kind of novel demands careful pacing, which in itself places demands upon the reader: I found the first hundred or so pages fairly slow as the claustrophobic environment is set out for us, and there are about 150 pages before the girl who died, dies. On the other hand I was disappointed later on to see that there were only fifty pages to go. The supernatural twist is just about earned, given the strong other-world dimension and the unreal surroundings (there’s not even any snow in the depths of midwinter). More interesting is the fusion between old mystery and new. Jónasson gives a shout out to his old teacher, Agatha Christie, and he mines her classic plots before providing something quite distinctive. While we’re doing shout-outs, here’s one to Victoria Cribb for a fine translation.
It’s good to see Jónasson try something fairly new: to keep the claustrophobia and psychological drama but with a quite different type of protagonist. It will be interesting to see whether he continues to explore the supernatural dimension in subsequent work. In the meantime, this tale of isolation at Christmas is just the thing for these long June days.
Thanks to Michael Joseph for the review copy.