The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson: A review
This is the first of Ragnar Jonasson's three-book series featuring detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police. Jonasson made the unusual decision to write the ending of Hulda's story first, and so in this book, we learn how it all turned out. The two later books will provide her earlier backstory. It's an interesting strategy and since I haven't yet read the other two books I can't judge how well it works overall but the story in this book worked well. It could easily be read as a standalone.
We meet Hulda when she is 64 years old and she is being forced to take early retirement by the department. This is very much against her will as she doesn't have much of a life outside of her job. She dreads the loneliness of no longer having the job to look forward to each day. She is told that she must leave in two weeks. During that time she will be allowed to work on one cold case of her choosing. She knows which one she will choose.
The previous year the body of a young woman had washed up on the shore. She was a Russian refugee who was seeking asylum in Iceland. The detective who was assigned to the case gave it short shrift. He took a cursory look at the case and decided it must have been suicide, assuming that the woman was despondent over her situation. The authorities accepted his assessment, ruled the death a suicide and the case was closed. Hulda suspects this was an error. She will now give the case a thorough investigation.
She soon uncovers information that the dead woman was not at all despondent, that in fact she had just been approved for asylum in the country and was looking forward to the future. Hulda also finds that there was another young Russian refugee woman, a friend of the deceased, who had disappeared around the same time. Apparently, no one ever looked for her or tried to find out what had happened to her.
Hulda is appalled that these two women were simply thrown away by her society and by the police department that never gave them justice. She is determined to uncover the secret of what happened to them. But as she digs deeper, she suspects that people are lying to her or not telling her the whole truth and even her own department seems determined to put the brakes on her investigation. Meantime, the time left to her in the job is slipping away. Will she be able to solve her last case before the time runs out?
Hulda is a fascinating character. The Darkness might refer to her own past that we learn is filled with tragedy and memories of her own failures. She is very good at her job but seems to have faced the misogyny and discrimination that is so much a part of the lives of many working women. She doesn't really have friends or anyone to whom she can confide and receive support. She is the very definition of loneliness. Perhaps it is because of that loneliness that she is able to empathize so readily with the victims in her cold case, because, as we will learn, they are victims.
Goodreads' synopsis of this book describes it as an "atmospheric thriller" which is an apt characterization. Jonasson builds the atmosphere of darkness and dread methodically and skillfully as he takes us toward a conclusion that is a gut punch and that was totally unexpected. The atmospherics are aided by his vivid descriptions of the Icelandic landscape and climate neither of which seem for the faint-hearted. I was unfamiliar with Jonasson but evidently, he has quite a reputation for Nordic Noir and a number of books to his credit. I look forward to reading the other two books in this series and becoming better acquainted with Hulda Hermannsdóttir.
(I would be remiss if I did not thank my blogging buddy, Sam Sattler, for recommending this series and this author. It was his intriguing review of this book that led me to read it.)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars