Nordic Noir Excerpt & Series Recommendation:
NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson (Dark Iceland Series)
Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series was the first Icelandic crime fiction I ever read, and I’m confident it will remain a favorite of mine for a long time. This December, NIGHTBLIND (Book 2 in the Dark Iceland series) will release in the US! To celebrate this exciting news, I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Jonasson’s US publisher, Minotaur, to share an excerpt of the first two chapters of NIGHTBLIND.
If you’ve never read Jonasson’s work, now is the time to start. The Dark Iceland series is richly atmospheric and masterfully wrought; Jonasson’s work is an entrancing and chilling blend of Nordic Noir and classic crime. Jonasson’s personal love for Agatha Christie can be felt heavily throughout his Dark Iceland series as he crafts modern crime fiction with timeless appeal. I highly recommend this series for crime readers looking for slow-burning, immersive mysteries set against a backdrop that’s as beautiful as it is haunting. I’m so excited to see these books being released in the US, and hope you’ll enjoy the below excerpt!
Many thanks to Minotaur for providing an excerpt from NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson! No portion of the below excerpt may be reproduced without the permission of the publisher.
Ari Thór Arason: a local policeman, whose tumultuous past and uneasy relationships with the villagers in an idyllically quiet fishing village in Northern Iceland—where no one locks their doors—continue to haunt him.
The peace of this close-knit community is shattered by the murder of a policeman—shot at point-blank range in the dead of night in a deserted house. With a killer on the loose and the dark arctic winter closing in, it falls to Ari Thór to piece together a puzzle that involves tangled local politics, a compromised new mayor, and a psychiatric ward in Reykjavik where someone is being held against their will. Then a mysterious young woman moves to the area, on the run from something she dares not reveal, and it becomes all too clear that tragic events from the past are weaving a sinister spell that may threaten them all.
EXCERPT: NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson
On sale 12/5/17; Minotaur
Yes, that’s the word. There was something unsettling about that ancient, broken-down house. The walls were leaden and forbidding, especially in this blinding rain. Autumn felt more like a state of mind than a real season here. Winter had swiftly followed on the heels of summer in late September or early October, and it was as if autumn had been lost somewhere on the road north. Herjólfur, Siglufjördur’s police inspector, didn’t particularly miss it, at least not the autumn he knew from Reykjavík, where he had been brought up. He had come to appreciate the summer in Siglufjördur, with its dazzlingly bright days. He enjoyed the winter as well, with its all-enveloping darkness that curled itself around you like a giant cat.
The house stood a little way from the entrance to the Strákar tunnel and as far as Herjólfur had been able to work out, it was years since anyone had lived in the place, located some distance from where the town proper hugged the shoreline. It looked as if it had simply been left there for nature’s heavy hands to do as she wished with the place, and her handiwork had been brutal.
Herjólfur had a special interest in this abandoned building and it was something that worried him. He was rarely fearful, having trained himself to push uncomfortable feelings to one side, but this time he’d been unsuccessful, and he was far from happy. The patrol car was now parked by the side of the road, and Herjólfur was hesitant to leave it. He shouldn’t even have been on duty, but Ari Thór, the town’s other police officer, was down with flu. Herjólfur sat still for a moment, the patrol car lashed by the bitter chill of the rain. His thoughts travelled to the warm living room at home. Moving up here had been something of a culture shock, but he and his wife had managed to make themselves comfortable, and their simple house had been gradually transformed into a home. Their daughter was at university in Reykjavík; their son had remained with his parents, living in the basement and attending a local college.
Herjólfur had a few days’ holiday coming up, assuming Ari Thór was fit to return to work. He had been planning to surprise his wife with a break in Reykjavík. He had booked flights from Akureyri and secured a couple of theatre tickets. This was the type of thing he tried to make a habit, to take a rest from the day-to-day routine whenever the opportunity presented itself. Now, in the middle of the night, and while he was still on duty, he fixed his mind on the upcoming trip, as if using it as a lifeline to convince himself that everything would be fine when he entered the house.
His mind wandered back to his wife. They had been married for twenty-two years. She had become pregnant early in the relationship, and so they were married soon after. There hadn’t been any hesitation or, indeed, choice. The decision wasn’t anything to do with faith, but more with the traditions of decency to which he clung. He had been properly brought up – a stern believer in the importance of setting a good example. And they were in love, of course. He’d never have married a woman he didn’t love. Then their daughter was born and she became the apple of his eye. She was in her twenties now, studying psychology, even though he had tried to convince her to go in for law. That was a path that could have brought her to work with the police, connected in some way to the world of law and order; his world.
The boy had come along three years later. Now he was nineteen, a stolid and hard-working lad in his final year at college. Maybe he’d be the one to go in for law, or just apply straight to the police college. Herjólfur had done his best to make things easier for them. He had plenty of influence in the force and he’d happily pull strings on their behalf if they decided to choose that kind of future; he was also guiltily aware that he was often inclined to push a little too hard. But he was proud of his children and it was his dearest hope that they would feel the same about him. He knew that he had worked hard, had pulled himself and his family up to a comfortable position in a tough environment. There was no forgetting that the job came with its own set of pressures.
The family had emerged from the financial crash in a bad way, with practically every penny of their savings having gone up in smoke overnight. Those were tough days, with sleepless nights, his nerves on edge and an unremitting fear that cast a shadow over everything. Now, at long last, things seemed to have started to stabilize again; he had what appeared to be a decent position in this new place, and they were comfortable, even secure. Although neither of them had mentioned it, he knew that Ari Thór had applied for the inspector’s post as well. Ari Thór had a close ally in Tómas, the former inspector at the Siglufjördur station, who had since moved to a new job in Reykjavík. Herjólfur wasn’t without connections of his own, but Tómas’s heartfelt praise of and support for Ari Thór hadn’t boded well. And yet, the post had gone to him and not to Ari Thór – a young man of whom Herjólfur still hadn’t quite got the measure. Ari Thór had not proved to be particularly talkative and it wasn’t easy to work out what he was thinking. Herjólfur wasn’t sure if there was a grudge there over the way things had turned out. They hadn’t been working together for long. Ari Thór’s son had been born at the end of the previous year, on Christmas Eve, and he had gone on to take four months’ paternity leave plus a month’s holiday. They weren’t friends or even that friendly, but it was still early days.
Herjólfur’s senses sharpened, and all thoughts of his colleague were pushed from his mind as he stepped out of the car, and gradually approached the house. He had that feeling again. The feeling that something was very wrong.
If it came to it, he reckoned he could easily hold his own with one man; two would be too much for him now that age had put paid to the fitness of his earlier years. He shook his head, as if to clear away ungrounded suspicions. There was every chance the old place would be empty. He was surprised at his discomfort.
There was no traffic. Few people found reason to travel to Siglufjördur at this time of year, least of all in the middle of the night and in such foul weather. The official first day of winter, according to the old Icelandic calendar, was next weekend, but that would only confirm what everyone already knew up here in the north – winter had arrived.
Herjólfur stopped in his tracks, suddenly aware of a beam of light – torchlight? –inside the old building. So there was someone there in the shadows, maybe more than one. Herjólfur was becoming increasingly dubious about this call-out and his nerves jangled.
Should he shout and make himself known, or try unobtrusively to make his way up to the house and assess the situation?
He shook his head again, and pulled himself together, striding forward almost angrily. Don’t be so soft. Don’t be so damned soft! He knew how to fight and the intruders were unlikely to be armed.
Or were they?
The dancing beam of light caught Herjólfur’s attention again and this time it shone straight into his eyes. Startled, he stopped, more frightened than he dared admit even to himself, squinting into the blinding light.
‘This is the police,’ he called out, with as much authority as he could muster, the quaver in his voice belying his bravado. The wind swept away much of the strength he’d put into his words, but they must have been heard inside, behind those gaping window frames.
‘This is the police,’ he repeated. ‘Who’s in there?’
The light was directed at him a second time and he had an overwhelming feeling that he needed to move, to find some kind of refuge. But he hesitated, all the time aware that he was acting against his own instincts. A police officer is the one with authority, he reminded himself. He shouldn’t let himself be rattled, feel the need to hide.
He took a step forward, closer to the house, his footsteps cautious.
That was when he heard the shot, deafening and deadly.
It wasn’t the first time that the crying of a child had woken Ari Thór. He looked at the clock and saw it was half-past five. He had gone to sleep early the previous night, after two days of battling a virulent bout of autumn flu, but it was still far too early to be awake.
Kristín was staying at home today. She had just returned to work at the hospital in Akureyri, but only part-time. Everything to do with the baby was thoroughly organised, sometimes too organised, Ari Thór felt. Vegetables had to be organic, raised voices should never be heard in his vicinity, and when the little one crawled across the floor, it should, ideally, have just been mopped to spotless perfection.
The boy was approaching ten months, almost a year old. Ari Thór had suggested that Kristín should go back to work full-time; the hospital was waiting for her, struggling to cope with a shortage of doctors. You can’t keep the kid wrapped in cotton wool forever.
And, if Ari Thór himself were to stay away from work any longer he’d risk losing his job. There had been talk of adding another police officer to the Siglufjördur force, but nothing had come of it. Cuts and savings were being made everywhere. A temporary officer had filled in while Ari Thór took his paternity leave, but had since returned to Reykjavík.
His role as a father was important to him, but it kept him busy, and was certainly a cause of tension every now and then between him and Kristín. Also, Ari Thór, being an only child, had little experience with children and initially struggled to get to grips with the basics. Then there was the issue of the boy’s name. Ari Thór had waited until a few days after the birth to broach the subject. He knew it would a bone of contention and it was more a question of how serious the argument would be, rather than if there would be one at all. To begin with, in the rosy glow of the birth of his first child, he felt that the name wouldn’t be all that important. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to stick to his guns, and upset the exquisite harmony that enveloped them. But his feelings surfaced again. It mattered. Ari Thór Arason was the clear choice, christening the child with the name of his own father who had died far too young.
‘Then you’ll be naming the child after yourself, as well,’ Kristín had pointed out when the discussion resurfaced. ‘What about my father? Is it right to leave either of them out?’
Ari decided not to make the obvious point his own father was no longer living, and that the name would be a well-deserved mark of respect. It was something that was deeply important to him, but he decided against inviting further dispute.
The result was that Kristín suggested christening the boy Stefnir: one who leads the way. A strong, vigorous name, but not a name from either his family or Kristín’s. Ari Thór spent a day and a night thinking it over – a protest in itself, although he wasn’t sure that the message had been clearly received.
Finally he agreed. He liked the name well enough and reckoned that the battle to name the child after his own father was as good as lost.
Kristín woke as Ari Thór shifted in bed. The child slept in an old cot in their bedroom and had started to cry vigorously. Ari Thór had bought it second-hand, having seen it advertised along with plenty of other stuff on the corkboard in the local Co-op. Up here business was done in the old-fashioned way and with no branch of Ikea anywhere to be found, furniture rarely found its way to the dump. The cot looked as good as new and he hadn’t bothered to tell Kristín that it wasn’t, as she probably would not have countenanced it with a newborn baby in the house.
Kristín stood up. ‘Stay in bed,’ she said. ‘I don’t want you giving Stefnir flu.’
He was thankful for the extra time in bed. He expected that he would need at least one more day off sick, which would mean another extra shift for Herjólfur.
He had made remarkably little contact with Herjólfur, his new superior. He was certainly an amiable and courteous character, as well as being a conscientious officer, but he came across as reserved. Disappointed at not being promoted, Ari Thór had to admit that he hadn’t gone out of his way to make his new colleague feel welcome when he first arrived. This had probably coloured their subsequent relationship and Ari was sure that he would never be as close to Herjólfur as he had been to his predecessor, Tómas, who had gone on to a promotion with the Reykjavík force. Tómas had mentioned more than once, in an informal way, that one day Ari Thór might want to move south to Reykjavík and apply for a post there. The implication was that there would be a job to go to if he ever needed one.
Ari Thór was desperately keen to make the move and mentioned the idea to Kristín. Although she looked mildly interested, she reminded him that she had made a commitment to her own managers to stay in her job at the hospital in the nearby town of Akureyri for at least another year.
‘Let’s think about it next year,’ she said with a smile. ‘This small town life isn’t so bad and all the sea air has to be good for Stefnir.’
Ari Thór sighed. Why was she always so contrary, first hating the idea of Siglufjördur and now loving it?
She had actually been unusually distant recently, and he couldn’t understand quite why. It could hardly be baby blues; this coolness was something new and the boy was almost a year old now.
Ari Thór’s mobile woke him. Kristín had already taken Stefnir downstairs, and the incessant ringing broke through the fragile tranquillity. He stretched for his phone with his eyes still closed. It was in its place on the nightstand, switched on day and night, whether he was on duty or not. There was no choice at a short-staffed police station in such a small community.
It would probably be Herjólfur calling to find out if he was well enough to return to work. Although Herjólfur wasn’t a great talker, Ari Thór knew that he and his wife Helena were planning a trip south to Reykjavík. Herjólfur had once told him that they didn’t really enjoy spending time outdoors and had never even been skiing, in spite of the excellent ski slopes just outside the town. This trip south, a trip to the theatre, Herjólfur had said, was important, and Ari Thór knew that he was expected to have shaken off the flu so they could go.
He answered without bothering to look at the screen and was startled to hear a female voice. This wasn’t Herjólfur.
‘Hello? Ari Thór?’ There was a tremor in the voice that he didn’t recognise. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you up.’
There was a moment’s silence.
‘Hello?’ he said. ‘Who is this?’
‘It’s Helena. Herjólfur’s wife.’
Ari Thór sat up. He saw that it was almost six o’clock; he would have liked a little longer in bed.
‘Hello,’ he repeated, taken by surprise.
‘I’m…’ She hesitated. ‘I’m looking for Herjólfur.’
‘Looking for him?’
‘He didn’t come home after he went out last night. That’s all I know. I was half-asleep. But he’s not back and I couldn’t get a reply when I called his phone.’
‘He’s not down at the station?’ Ari Thór asked. ‘I suppose he expected to be relieving me again today. I’ve had this miserable flu.’
‘I called the station as well,’ Helena said. ‘No answer there.’
This was a strange situation.
‘I’ll try calling him and if I don’t get an answer I’ll take a look around the town and see if I can see the patrol car anywhere.’
‘You haven’t heard from him?’ Helena asked, even though the answer was obvious.
‘I’m afraid not. Leave it with me and I’ll be in touch,’ Ari said decisively, and ended the call. Punching in the number for Herjólfur’s phone, he heard it ring without reply. It was tough having to be up and about in his condition, but there was no longer any choice in the matter.
Deciding against wearing his uniform, Ari Thór pulled on the clothes that he’d hung at the end of his bed, and made his way downstairs. Kristín was feeding Stefnir porridge, or doing her best anyway, as most of the food seemed to be on his face.
‘I have to go out, and I’ll need to borrow the car.’
There was only one car, Kristín’s, which was used only for commuting between Siglufjördur and Akureyri.
‘Go out?’ she asked with a look of surprise. ‘You’re ill, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, but Herjólfur has…’ Ari Thór wasn’t quite sure how to put it into words. ‘He seems to have disappeared,’ he said finally.
‘Disappeared?’ Kristín smiled. Ari Thór realised that it sounded incongruous for him to be leaving his sick bed to search for a grown man.
‘You’re telling me you’ve lost a whole policeman?’
The little boy gave him a smile. Everyone but Ari Thór seemed to be finding this amusing.
‘I won’t be long, sweetheart.’
Night was just turning into day in the little town.
Ari Thór drove to the police station to make sure that Herjólfur wasn’t there, even checking inside, to be absolutely sure, but the station was empty. Herjólfur was nowhere to be seen.
There had to be some reasonable explanation, but, still groggy, Ari Thór struggled to see one. He drove slowly through the centre of town, then took a larger sweep through the side streets but there was no sign of the patrol car. Before going any further, Ari Thór decided that it would be worth taking a look at the only two roads leading out of the town, the road towards the old mountain tunnel, Strákar tunnel, and the road leading to the new Hédinsfjördur tunnel.
He knew he wasn’t fit to drive, still half-asleep, sick and weak, and he had to do a double take when he saw the patrol car at the roadside near the Strákar tunnel entrance, next to the old house that had been empty and becoming steadily more dilapidated ever since he had moved to the town.
Growing increasingly uneasy, Ari Thór felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding – almost like a premonition. At that exact moment, he knew that something had happened to Herjólfur. With an adrenaline buzz providing the boost of energy he needed to sideline the flu for a while and think clearly, he pulled up behind the patrol car.
Bracing himself against the freezing rain, his eyes struggling to adjust in the darkness that preceded the dawn, he peered through the car windows, and then opened the doors of the patrol car to see if Herjólfur might be inside.
His concern deepening, Ari Thór surveyed the landscape that surrounded him, the high mountain from which the road had literally been carved, and the sea on the other side. There was barely room for this single house there on the side of the road, on what was essentially a landfill site, and beyond it was a sheer and deadly drop into the cold, northern sea. There was no light from the house and no sign of his colleague. Making his way briskly towards the house, his jacket pulled tightly around him as the wind whipped the rain into a frenzy, he wondered if anyone would hear him if he called out. And then there was no need.
In the gravel a few yards away from the malevolent house lay a man in police uniform. He was completely still. Ari Thór shone his torch to be sure that it was Herjólfur, although he knew it could be no one else. The sight of the blood that was seeping into the puddles around the fallen man made him catch his breath, and he paused for a moment, struggling to believe what his own eyes were telling him, before bending down instinctively to search for signs of life. Fingers shaking, Ari Thór tried without success to find a pulse, and the thought occurred to him that he could be in danger himself. Should he get away from the scene and call an ambulance from the car?
And then he felt it – he was certain he had found a faint pulse. Or was it just an illusion, hope defeating reality?
Pulling his phone from his pocket, he wiped the screen with the sleeve of his jacket, and called the emergency line, asking for an ambulance to be sent immediately, his voice high-pitched, odd to his own ears. It wasn’t far to travel. The hospital was no distance away. He explained the situation in words as short and clear as he could manage.
‘He’s still alive?’
‘I think so,’ he replied quietly; and then, more loudly, and with determination, ‘I think he is.’
There was no more that he could do. He was in no position to take any risks or assess the extent of Herjólfur’s injuries.
He felt an instinctive urge to flee, to get himself to somewhere safer, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave Herjólfur. He sat on the ground at his side, shivering uncontrollably. There was nobody to be seen and it was unusually dark over the fjord that morning. It was a gloomy time of year, with sunshine a rare visitor and in a few weeks the sun would disappear behind the mountains for two long months.
In the distance he saw lights and instinctively began rubbing Herjólfur’s hand. ‘They’re coming,’ he said in a low voice. ‘It’s going to be all right.’ His words were sent spiralling away on the wind. It occurred to him that he was probably speaking to nobody but himself.
Just then an uncomfortable thought occurred to him, and he tried unsuccessfully to cast it from his mind, to stifle it before it grew any larger.
If Herjólfur could not return to duty, then the inspector’s position was undoubtedly his.
At last they gave me a pencil and a notebook.
It’s an old yellow pencil, badly sharpened, and an old notebook that someone has already used, the first few pages untidily ripped out. Had someone else already tried to put into words their difficulties and their helplessness, just as I’m doing? Maybe there were some pretty doodles there, the unchanging view of the back garden rendered in artistic form, if that could be done. Some things are so grey and cold that no amount of colour on a page could ever bring them to life.
I feel a little better now that I can scribble a few words on paper, but I can’t explain exactly why. I’ve never taken any particular satisfaction from writing. It’s only now that I have the feeling that this might save my life.
It probably doesn’t even matter what I write here in this notebook. Maybe something of the background to my being here, my feelings and the monotonous existence in this place. Whatever it takes to maintain my sanity.
I’ve had practically no sleep for the last two nights. There’s bright sunlight pretty much day and night, and these heavy curtains don’t do much good. The sun sneaks its way past them to keep me awake. The brightness doesn’t seem to bother my roommate and he’s sound asleep all night long. He’s just as quiet during the daylight hours, doesn’t say a lot, the type who is sparing with words. In my innocence, I thought that I’d be happy with that, but on reflection I reckon there’s a lot to be said for having someone to talk to.
I suppose I could have talked more to the nurse, but I don’t really want to. She was the one who found the pencil and the notebook for me, that was good of her. But there’s something about her that discourages me from coming closer. There’s something about her eyes I don’t like, something that tells me not to trust her. Not that I’m claiming my judgement is flawless right now, but I have to go by what my guts tell me.
It’s a good while since the lights went out but I’m still sitting here writing in the half-dark. I pulled the curtain aside to let in a little light. It doesn’t appear to disturb my roommate, any more than the scratching of my pencil does on these pages.
I can feel the weight of my own fatigue growing with every word that I write. At last. It’s a familiar and long-awaited feeling. Maybe I can overcome the night-time brightness by simply embracing it.
No more now. Now I’m going to close the curtain and try to rest.
Nightblind by Ragnar Jonasson
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books (December 5, 2017)
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