Nordic Noir Book Review: BLACKOUT by Ragnar Jonasson

BLACKOUT by Ragnar Jonasson
Orenda Books
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The Verdict: masterful, gripping Icelandic crime

Ragnar Jonasson’s BLACKOUT is arguably the perfect crime novel. I have loved the previous books in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, but BLACKOUT took my obsession to a new level. This story perfectly balances murder mystery with character development and present-day plotlines with flashbacks, and delivers a read that’s emotional, intriguing, and impossible to put down. 

BLACKOUT takes place following the events of SNOWBLIND, book one in the Dark Iceland series. BLACKOUT begins with the discovery of a body: a man has been brutally beaten to death on a bright summer’s night. A young reporter in Reykjavik leaves the city, heading north to investigate the crime. The victim has ties to Siglufjordur, and Ari Thor and his colleagues find themselves in the middle of a case that becomes murkier with each passing moment. What secrets did the dead man hold? Why is this young reporter so invested in this case? And what larger implications will this case have for Ari Thor’s town? BLACKOUT is an atmospheric, chilling story of past horrors and their present-day implications. 

There are so very many things to love about BLACKOUT, but my most favorite element of this book is the rich character development found within it. Jonasson has meticulously crafted characters that seem to jump off the page—each flawed, unique, and totally human. In SNOWBLIND, readers witnessed Ari Thor sabotage his personal life; in BLACKOUT, we feel for Ari Thor as he realizes the terrible mistake he’s made, and mourns the loss of his ex-girlfriend Kristin in his life. Beyond Ari Thor’s personal development, Jonasson has crafted a whole town of characters who are vivid and three-dimensional. To name just a few examples, there are insights provided into the lives of Ari Thor’s colleagues at the police department, the young journalist who plays a central role in this story, the murder victim, and even many of the townspeople who play a crucial role in the story’s central mystery. Jonasson manages to write sparingly and yet in vivid detail, a skill that makes his books both richly developed and fast-paced. 

Beyond the stunning cast of characters, BLACKOUT is just plain excellent crime writing. Jonasson has crafted a mystery that spans decades, drawing in individuals both from Iceland and from around the world. The scope of this mystery is massive, but Jonasson picks and chooses his plot points very deliberately. There’s no extraneous information here—just the relevant facts, delivered in simply gorgeous language. I was glued to the pages, dying to know how each thread of this mystery would come together - and when it finally did, I was heartbroken and shocked by its outcome. 

If you’re new to the Dark Iceland series, it’s worth noting that Jonasson’s books are far from typical Scandinavian crime fiction, and I love them all the more for it. Where Scandinavian crime fiction tends towards violence, Jonasson’s books are more subtle: they have violent crimes at their core, but rather than describing the violent scenes in detail, they focus on the aftermath of those crimes. Their pacing is also a bit different, reminding me more of an Agatha Christie novel than a Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbo. Jonasson’s novels bring a fresh perspective to the Scandinavian crime genre, and their nuanced plots and dark atmospheres make them must-reads. 

One final thought: Quentin Bates’ translations are really stellar. Translators don’t often get the praise they deserve, so I just had to take a moment to acknowledge how masterfully Bates captures the beauty of both Jonasson’s writing and Iceland’s atmosphere in his work. 

BLACKOUT is now available in paperback from Orenda Books. American readers, grab your copy on BookDepository!