Taut and terrifying, Snowblind is a startling debut from the extraordinary new talent Ragnar Jonasson (available January 31, 2017).
Where: A quiet fishing village in northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors. It is accessible only via a small mountain tunnel.
Who: Ari Thor is a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik. He has a past that he's unable to leave behind.
What: A young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed elderly writer falls to his death. Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.
Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness―blinded by snow and with a killer on the loose.
SIGLUFJÖRDUR: WEDNESDAY, 14TH JANUARY 2009
The red stain was like a scream in the silence.
The snow-covered ground was so white that it had almost banished the winter night’s darkness, elemental in its purity. It had been snowing since that morning, big, heavy flakes falling gracefully to earth. That evening there was a break in the snowfall and no more had fallen since.
Few people were about. Most people stayed indoors, happy to enjoy the weather from behind a window. It was possible that some of them had decided to stay at home after the death at the Dramatic Society. Tales travelled swiftly and the atmosphere was heavy with suspicion, in spite of the town’s peaceful outward appearance. A bird flying over the town would not have noticed anything unusual, would not have sensed the tension in the air, the uncertainty and even the fear, not unless it had flown over the little back garden in the middle of the town.
The tall trees surrounding the garden were in their winter finery, taking on shadowy shapes in the darkness that were reminiscent of clowns rather than trolls, decked in delicate white from the ground up, in spite of the snow weighing down some of their branches.
A comforting light shone from the warm houses and the street lights illuminated the main roads. This back garden was far from being hidden in gloom, even though it was late.
The ring of mountains protecting the town was almost entirely white that night and the highest peaks could just be glimpsed. It was as if they had failed in their duty these last few days, as if something unexplained, some threat, had stolen through the town; something that had remained more or less unseen, until that night.
She lay in the middle of the garden, like a snow angel.
From a distance she appeared peaceful.
Her arms splayed from her sides. She wore a faded pair of jeans and was naked from the waist up, her long hair around her like a coronet in the snow; snow that shouldn’t be that shade of red.
A pool of blood had formed around her.
Her skin seemed to be paling alarmingly fast, taking on the colour of marble, as if in response to the striking crimson that surrounded her.
Her lips were blue. Her shallow breath came fast.
She seemed to be looking up into the dark heavens.
Then her eyes snapped shut.
REYKJAVÍK: SPRING 2008
It wasn’t far off midnight, but it was still light. The days were growing longer and longer. It was the time of year when each new day, brighter than the day before, brought with it the hope of something better, and things were looking bright for Ari Thór Arason. His girlfriend, Kristín, had finally moved into his little flat on Öldugata, although this wasn’t much more than a formality. She had been staying there most nights anyway, except those just before an exam, when she liked to read in the peace and quiet of her parents’ house, often far into the night.
Kristín came into the bedroom from the shower, a towel around her waist.
‘God, I’m tired. Sometimes I wonder why I went for medicine.’
Ari Thór looked round from the little desk in the bedroom.
‘You’ll be a fantastic doctor.’
She lay on the bed, stretching out on top of the duvet, her blonde hair spread like a halo on the white of the bedclothes.
Like an angel, Ari Thór thought, admiring her as she stretched out her arms and then ran them gently down her torso.
Like a snow angel.
‘Thanks, my love. And you’ll be a brilliant cop,’ she said. ‘But I still think you should have finished your theology degree,’ she couldn’t help adding.
He knew that well enough and didn’t need to hear it from her. First it had been philosophy, until he had given up on it, and then theology. He had packed that in as well, and found himself enrolling in the police college. Roots were something he had never been able to put down properly, always seeking something that suited his temperament, something with a little excitement to it. He reckoned he had probably applied for theology as a challenge to some god he was convinced didn’t exist; some god who had snatched away any chance he had of growing up normally when he was thirteen, when his mother died and his father had disappeared without a trace. It wasn’t until he had met Kristín and – only two years earlier – been able to puzzle out the mystery of his father’s disappearance that Ari Thór began to achieve a little peace of mind. This was when the idea of the police college had first crossed his mind, with the expectation that he’d make a better cop than a clergyman. The police college had left him in fine physical shape, and the weight-lifting, running and swimming had made him broader across the shoulders than he had ever been before. He had certainly never been this fit when he was poring over theology texts night and day.
‘Yeah, I know,’ he replied, a little stung. ‘I haven’t forgotten the theology. I’m just taking a break from it.’
‘You ought to make an effort and finish it, while it’s still fresh in your mind. It’s so hard to start again if you leave it too long,’ she said, and Ari Thór knew she wasn’t speaking from experience. She had always finished everything she set out to do, flying through one exam after another. Nothing seemed capable of stopping her and she had just finished the fifth of the six years of her medical degree. He wasn’t envious – just proud. Sooner or later they would need to move abroad so that she could specialise, something that had never been discussed, but of which he was all too keenly aware.
She put a pillow behind her head and looked at him. ‘Isn’t it awkward having the desk in the bedroom? And isn’t this flat way too small?’
‘Small? No, I love it. I’d hate to move out of the centre of town.’
She lay back, her head sinking into the pillow. ‘Anyway, there’s no hurry.’
‘There’s plenty of space for the two of us.’ Ari Thór stood up. ‘We’ll just have to be cosy.’
He removed the towel and lay carefully on top of her, kissing her long and deep. She returned the kiss, wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close.
How the hell could they have forgotten the rice?
She was livid as she picked up the phone to call the little side-street Indian place that was five minutes from their sprawling detached house. With its two stylish, brick-built storeys, orange roof and large garage capped by a sunlit patio on its roof, it was a dream home for a big family. They were still happy here, even though the children had all flown the nest and retirement wasn’t far away.
She tried to calm down as she waited for the phone to be answered. She had been looking forward to sitting down in front of the television to watch a Friday-night sitcom over a piping-hot chicken curry with rice. She was home alone, her husband away on business and probably now on his way to the night flight that would bring him home the following morning.
The infuriating thing was that the Indian place didn’t do deliveries, so she could see herself having to go out again while the rest of her dinner cooled. Bloody mess. At least it was warm enough outside that walking wouldn’t be any great hardship.
When someone finally answered, she came straight to the point.
‘Who has a curry without rice?’ she complained, her voice rising out of all proportion to the apparent offence.
When the waiter apologised and then hesitantly offered to prepare a replacement immediately, she slammed down the phone and, fighting back her anger, set off into the darkness.
* * *
It look her longer than usual to find the keys in her handbag when she returned ten minutes later, the rice in a bag, ready for a relaxed evening with something good to eat. It wasn’t until the key was turning in the lock that she sensed a presence, something that wasn’t right. But then it was too late.
REYKJAVÍK: SUMMER 2008
Ari Thór came in from the rain. Coming home to the flat in Öldugata had always given him a warm feeling, but this past summer that feeling had never been warmer.
‘Hi, is that you?’ Kristín called from the desk in the bedroom, where she sat over her textbooks when she wasn’t on duty at the National Hospital.
He felt that the flat had taken on a new life when she moved in. The white walls, which had been neutral before, suddenly became bright. There was an aura about Kristín, even when she sat silently over a book at the desk, an energy that Ari Thór found captivating. Occasionally he had the feeling that he had lost control of his own life. He was twenty-four and the future was no longer a blank sheet. He never said anything to her; feelings weren’t the easiest thing for him to talk about.
He looked into the bedroom. She sat there with a book.
Why did she have to sit over these books all summer?
The sunshine didn’t seem to have tempted her.
‘Walking to work and back is enough for me. That’ll do for time outdoors,’ she teased, when he nicely tried to persuade her to walk downtown whenever he had a sunny day off. That summer he was in training with the police force at Keflavík airport, while his final term at the police college approached.
He sometimes wondered what had prompted him, only a year ago, to give up on theology – although perhaps only temporarily – and test his talents elsewhere. He had never been one for spending a lot of time over textbooks. He needed to have some activity, a little variety. There was something about police work that fascinated him: the excitement and the drama. It certainly wasn’t the money. He had been accepted by the police college even though the term had been about to start.
He found he relished police work, enjoying the responsibility and the buzz of adrenaline.
Now his training was almost over; just one term to go and then he’d be qualified. It still wasn’t clear what the next step would be once he graduated. He had applied for several posts with the police, had been turned down a few times and still had no offers.
‘It’s me. What’s new?’ he called to Kristín, hanging up his damp coat. He went in to where she was absorbed in a book and planted a kiss on the back of her neck.
‘Hi.’ Her voice was warm, but she didn’t put the book aside.
‘How’s it going?’
She closed the book, having carefully marked her place, and turned to him. ‘Not bad. You went to the gym?’
‘Yes, and feel better for it.’
His mobile phone began to ring.
He went out into the hall, took his phone from his coat pocket.
‘Ari Thór?’ said a booming voice. ‘Ari Thór Arason?’
‘That’s me,’ he answered, slightly suspiciously as he hadn’t recognised the caller’s number.
‘My name’s Tómas. I’m with the police in Siglufjördur.’ The tone was slightly friendlier now.
Ari Thór moved into the kitchen to be able to speak without being overheard. Siglufjördur was one post which he had applied for without telling Kristín. This was a place he didn’t know much about, only that one could hardly travel farther north in Iceland; a place probably closer to the Arctic Circle than to Reykjavík.
‘I’d like to offer you a job,’ said the man calling himself Tómas.
Ari was slightly taken aback. He had never seriously considered Siglufjördur as an option. ‘Well…’
‘I need your answer now, lots of kids lining up for this one, people with more experience than you. I like your background – philosophy and theology. Just what you need to become a good copper in a small village.’
‘I’ll take it,’ Ari Thór replied, almost to his own surprise. ‘Thanks, this means a lot to me.’
‘Don’t mention it. We’ll start you off with two years,’ Tómas said. ‘A two-year sentence!’ he boomed, laughter echoing down the line. ‘And then I’m sure you’ll be able to stay on if you want. When can you start?’
‘Well, I have some exams this winter, so…’
‘You can do the final ones from here, I think. How about November, mid-November perhaps? Perfect time to get to know the town. The sun will be about to leave until January, and the ski slopes will be opening. We have great slopes here. Then perhaps you can take Christmas off.’
Ari Thór thought of saying that he didn’t really ski, but instead only said thanks again. He had a feeling that he would get along well with this loud but friendly man.
* * *
When he went back into the bedroom, Kristín was again deep in her book.
‘I have a job,’ he said abruptly.
Kristín looked up. ‘What? Really?’ She closed the book and turned quickly towards him, this time forgetting to mark her place. ‘That’s brilliant!’
There was pure happiness in her voice. Kristín was always softly spoken, as if nothing ever took her by surprise, but Ari Thór was starting to learn how to read her expressions. Those deep-blue eyes that contrasted so powerfully with the short blonde hair could have a mesmerising effect to begin with, but underneath there was someone naturally determined and assertive; someone who knew exactly what she wanted.
‘I know, it’s unbelievable. I hadn’t expected anything so soon. Loads of us are graduating in December and there aren’t many jobs to be had.’
‘So where is this job? Here in town? A relief post?’
‘No, it’s a two-year contract … at least.’
‘In town?’ Kristín repeated, and he could see from her expression that she suspected it might not be.
‘Well, actually, no.’ He hesitated before continuing. ‘It’s up north. In Siglufjördur.’
She was silent and each passing second felt like an hour.
‘Siglufjördur?’ Her voice had lifted and the tone gave a clear message.
‘Yes, it’s a great opportunity,’ he said mildly, almost pleadingly, hoping that she would see his side, that it was important to him.
‘And you said yes? Without even thinking to ask me?’ Her eyes narrowed. Her voice was bitter, verging on anger.
‘Well…’ He hesitated. ‘Sometimes you just have to grab an opportunity. If I hadn’t made a decision on the spot, then they would have taken someone else.’ He was silent for a moment. ‘They picked me,’ he added, almost apologetically.
Ari Thór had given up on philosophy and then he had given up on theology. He had lost his parents far too young and had been alone in a hard world since childhood. Then Kristín had picked him. That had given him just the same feeling he was experiencing now.
They picked me.
This would be his first real job, and one that would carry responsibility. He had made an effort to do well at the police college. So why couldn’t Kristín just be happy for him?
‘You don’t decide to move to Siglufjördur just like that, without talking it over with me, dammit. Tell them you need to think it over,’ she said, her voice cold.
‘Please, I don’t want to risk this. They want me there in the middle of November, I’ll take the last couple of exams there, and be back for a break at Christmas. Why don’t you see if you can come as well?’
‘I have to work here as well as studying; you know that perfectly well, Ari Thór. Sometimes I just don’t understand you.’ She stood up. ‘This is bloody ridiculous. I thought we were partners, doing all this together.’ She turned aside to hide her tears. ‘I’m going for a walk.’
She left with rapid steps, out of the bedroom and into the passage.
Ari Thór remained rooted to the spot, dumbstruck that he had completely lost control of the situation.
He was about to call out to her when he heard the front door slam shut.
Copyright © 2017 Ragnar Jonasson.
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Ragnar Jonasson was born in Iceland and works as an Attorney at Law and writer in Reykjavik. Before embarking on a writing career, Ragnar translated fourteen Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic. Ragnar is the co-founder of the Reykjavik international crime writing festival Iceland Noir. He has appeared on panels at various crime fiction festivals, including Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime in the US. Ragnar lives in Reykjavik with his wife and two daughters. Snowblind is his debut novel.