Book Review: The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson
By Ray PalenJuly 8, 2020
Icelandic crime/thriller author Ragnar Jonasson completes his Hidden Iceland series with a tale so cold, dark, and sinister it will freeze the very blood in your veins to ice. For a small country of only 365,000 inhabitants, Jonasson’s novels would make you think that there is something dangerous cooking around every corner. The Mist is a novel that takes us back to 1987. A more innocent time from today, you would think, but tragedy awaits the two families involved here over the Christmas holiday.
Of course, to increase the tension and atmosphere, Jonasson sets this Christmas holiday murder tale in the face of a monster snow-storm. The prologue begins in February 1988, where Police Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir (I’ll just refer to her as ‘Hulda’ going forward) is given the task of investigating some murders that took place at a farmhouse located miles from civilization. She is still quite fresh from her own tragedy over the holidays which I will address shortly.
Einar and Erla Einarsson live and work on a farm miles away from big towns like Reykjavik and they have quite taken to this pastoral life-style. Their daughter, Anna, also lives at the edge of their property in a separate farmhouse. They are preparing for another Christmas holiday spent at home reading some of the new books they got for each other and have left packaged under the tree. There are two things that are going to throw a major hitch into their holiday plans. First is the monster snowstorm which will most likely knock out their electricity and force them to exist by candlelight—something they really don’t mind as they don’t even own a TV. The other thing is an unexpected visitor who drops in on them out of the blue.
Just as the snow is starting to pile up outside they get a knock on their front door. The visitor is a man named Leo who claims he was out hunting with friends and somehow got separated from them and now was lost. Not knowing where he was and with night quickly approaching, he chose the Einarsson’s house to seek warmth and possibly food. Well, Einar insists that Leo stay overnight in the guest room as they typically have visitors who wander through the area and have done likewise. Plus, he’s not about to throw Leo back out into the snowstorm. Erla has much more common sense and also reads plenty of books by Agatha Christie, this makes her immediately not trust the unassuming stranger. Additionally, both Einar and Erla begin to poke holes in Leo’s story and, when they confront him with it, he easily brushes everything away with quick answers that really don’t satisfy them.
During this time, Hulda was working a case of a missing young twenty-year-old woman who seems to have vanished without a trace. As Hulda takes on the search for this young woman, Unnur, she is also dealing with issues that have recently arisen in her own family. Hulda and her husband Jon have suddenly been having problems with their usually upbeat teen-aged daughter, Dimma. She is acting very withdrawn and even the family holiday traditions around Christmas are not enough to perk her up. Additionally, Hulda has to work on Christmas day which does not make matters any easier on the home-front.
Meanwhile, back at the Einarsson’s, electricity and phone service are both out and they are left with candlelight. They retire to their bedroom and their guest heads upstairs to the guest sleeping area. Erla is awakened in the middle of the night by noise and she is confident that Leo is walking around the house. She also suspects that he may have something to do with the phone being out. She is able to convince Einar to get up prior to dawn and confront their guest who had promised to leave first thing in the morning. Things begin to quickly devolve into a dangerous place and Erla heads off for her daughter Anna’s house, convinced that Leo visited that home first and did harm to their daughter. She is unable to find anyone at Anna’s house and upon returning to her own finds her husband lying on the floor with a dark pool of liquid spreading underneath his head. She runs for the only place she can think of to hide—the basement. This basement is a scary place on a normal day. During a major snowstorm, it is a claustrophobic, freezing tomb and Erla’s mind might get the best of her before the stranger Leo does.
Hulda’s world on Christmas Day is not much better. She calls home repeatedly from the office, sorry that she had agreed to the shift. Jon only reports that their sullen teen, Dimma, has retreated to her room and will not come out. Hulda comes home and tells Jon that they need to urge her out as it was Christmas. He is unable to open her locked door and eventually has to break it down. Inside they find the body of their daughter on the floor, the obvious victim of suicide. Hulda’s screams reverberate through the house as the loss of her only child on such a special day was the worst thing she could ever hope to experience.
Ragnar Jonasson is so skilled at word-play and building up the tension that he squeezes every ounce of terror out of each of these story-lines. Of course, the Einarsson’s tale is far more atmospheric and claustrophobic and really qualifies as true terror. I noticed in his bio that, prior to becoming an author, Jonasson had personally translated fourteen Dame Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic. He definitely picked up on her style and it can be seen throughout The Mist. I am sorry to reach the end of the Hidden Iceland saga but eager to see what he has planned for us next.