While Ragnar Jonasson has been in a best-selling author in Nordic countries for almost a decade, his works weren’t published in the United States until January of this year, when Minotaur Books released “Snowblind.” The book’s success—as well as the general popularity of “Nordic Noir”—has prompted the publisher to release a second Jonasson book, Nightblind, a continuation of what the author calls his “Dark Iceland” series. Jonasson spoke with us about the appeal of the Nordic Noir genre, his series’ protagonist, and his approach to the writing process.
Q: “Nightblind” has been a hit overseas, but it makes its North American debut this week. Tell us about the book.
A: This novel is part of my Dark Iceland series, but I try to write each novel so that it can stand alone, permitting first-time readers to enjoy them. “Nightblind” features Ari Thor, a young, recently-graduated policeman who moves to a town, Siglufjörður, that is isolated and mostly uneventful. Thor establishes himself in this town, and he has a new boss who, in the first chapter of “Nightblind,” is shot. Thor has to investigate, and it becomes one of the highest profile cases in Iceland.
Q: Any time a police officer is shot, it’s going to be news, but this is particularly true in Iceland.
A: Yes, no police officer has ever been killed in the line of duty in Iceland. Conversely, in the entire history of Iceland, the police have only fatally shot a suspect one time.
Q: Although the novel addresses a fatal shooting, it also focuses on domestic violence.
A: Iceland doesn’t have many murders—maybe two to three per year—so I didn’t want that necessarily to be the focus of my novel. But domestic violence happens everywhere, and it is often unreported, and it is the focus of this book.
Q: Does the isolation of Siglufjörður make it a challenge to come up with new ideas, new crimes for the protagonist to grapple with?
A: That is a challenge. Siglufjörður is a town that I love very much, because my family has had a long presence there. My grandfather wrote a series of books on the town’s history, so I am sort of following in his tradition. But it’s a small town, and you don’t want to fall prey to the Jessica Fletcher syndrome, where every person in Cabot Cove (the setting of Murder She Wrote) was killed during the many seasons of that series. In some ways my books follow in the golden-age tradition of the detective story, kind of like Agatha Christie, whom I was influenced by. But I am also writing a Nordic Noir type book, and those are realistic. To address that, I’ve moved the action away somewhat from Siglufjörður. In the next three books that are due, the crimes take place in the northern parts of Iceland.
Q: You mention Nordic Noir, and you’ve also mentioned the low crime rate in Iceland. What explains the international appeal of crime stories in a setting where relatively few crimes actually take place?
A: I think it’s the contrast implicit in your question. The Scandinavian countries have an image of peace, and it’s true, as with the case of Iceland, because there isn’t a lot of crime. The contrast of seeing a violent act disrupt this harmony is interesting. The appeal also comes from the authors working in this field for a much longer time than I have been. There is a decades-long tradition created by some great names, and it is good to stand on their shoulders and be a part of it.
Q: Apart from the appeal of Nordic Noir, your protagonist, Ari Thor, also has a following. What is the challenge of making a character appealing, but also sufficiently complex to be interesting?
A: When I began writing about Thor, I didn’t know it would be a series. I made him a few years younger than I, so that I could understand his experiences. His backstory involves losing both parents at a young age, growing up lonely and without a support net. He searches for God in seminary, but he gives up on that. He then turns to philosophy, which is another way of him trying to understand the world. And then he becomes a policeman. As I write more about him, I get to know him better, and I see new sides of him. He has grown. He has become more mature but his failings also become more obvious.
Q: In “Nightblind,” and in the other novels of yours that I have read, I sense that the characters interest you more than the investigative process.
A: I like to explore the characters as flawed individuals. We are all flawed, and we want to understand why people do what they do. For me, the interesting thing about crime fiction is the psychology of the people I am writing about, much more so than the police investigation. I try to keep the books moving, but I try to do that by understanding people’s psychology; their motivations; their relations, which are sometimes strained; and these factors together create tension, which I hope will be appealing to the reader.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.