Outside, a standalone mystery from Ragnar Jónasson, is an odd one. The king of the Icelandic locked door gives us a stand-off in a shelter in a storm, miles from anywhere. So far, so straightforward. (Though we’ll find that the door is most certainly unlocked.) Outside tells the tale of a hunting trip that’s gone wrong for four old friends. Let’s call it the worst reunion trip ever. There is loathing and irritation and that’s before we even set off. One of them makes a drunken pass at the other and the atmosphere is as icy as the weather.
The problem with reunions is that there may be a festering issue from the past that causes an undercurrent. There are so many undercurrents in this one that it’s a miracle the little hut they’re sheltering in hasn’t been swept away. And that’s before we meet the mystery man who has a gun but no words to explain his presence. Helena can’t forget the now deceased love of her life, Víkungur. We begin to suspect that he is an unseen character in all this. Daníel, the actor who left Iceland to make it big in the UK, is good at playing the entirely fictitious role of an actor who actually did make it big, unlike Daníel. What he cannot play is the role of hero. Gunnlaugur is a mess of a man. Ármann got into trouble as a young man but is now self-made and successful.
They’re all awful and they don’t like each other, but Jónasson gives each of them point-of-view chapters so they get a chance to make their case to us at least. (In terms of their likeability, it doesn’t help.)
In the hands of a less-skilled storyteller, the premise is somewhat slight to fill a novel – but the film rights have been sold so I obviously know nothing. There are only so many ways that you can fit the various permutations, given five characters plus Víkungur.
But there’s a magnetism to it all that stops us from pulling away. Jónasson gives us a sense of slow menace that drips through the pages, but with moments of high action to keep us hooked. We may not like the characters but boy do we want to know who survives and how. Maybe we assume it will end badly, and we want to be there wagging our fingers at the survivors, maybe it’s because Jónasson never really gives us permission to put the book down, but we readers are right there to the bitter end.
Thanks to Michael Joseph for the review copy.
You may also enjoy our coverage of Ragnar Jónasson’s other work:
Another standalone novel, The Girl Who Died
From the Hidden Iceland series, The Mist
And the title that got it all started, the first book we reviewed on Cafethinking, Snowblind from the Dark Iceland series