The Island, by Ragnar Jónasson (trans. Victoria Cribb), is the second in his Hidden Iceland series with main detective Hulda Hermannsdóttir. I haven’t read much (if any) of the “Nordic noir” genre before now. Still, this was very positively reviewed on Strong Sense of Place’s Iceland episode, and I have come to trust their judgement. The premise is a bit complicated, because in a sense the story has three beginnings: in the very first chapter (almost more of a prologue), two parents leave their young daughter with her favourite babysitter to have a rare evening out. When they come back, she’s terrified and clingy – very out-of-character for her – because of something that happened during the evening. In the next, two young students have gone for a romantic escape deep in the isolated Westfjords. And in the last of these three beginnings, ten years later, four friends go for a weekend away on Elliðaey Island, where the house they are staying in is the only home to be found…

Hulda Hermannsdóttir is the detective called in after the final of these three introductions (in 1997). Her boss asks her to go out to the island to investigate an unexplained death. As she does so, she begins to suspect links to a previous case ten years ago, but the only information she can get out of the survivors is confusing and contradictory. Hulda is in many ways a typical troubled police officer, but the things that trouble her are slightly different to those which I’ve seen in other series. She was interesting enough to keep me engaged, and there were other point-of-view characters as well, which kept things interesting. I suspect Hulda’s backstory might have made more sense if I’d read The Darkness (the first in this series), but there was enough information to follow it.

There were some annoying minor quibbles. I’m not sure if it was the translation or the original text, but I found the exposition very clumsy in places. Whole backstories are given in single clauses, e.g.:

What the new recruit didn’t know was that Andrés had lost his life savings and more in a mink-farming business venture with a local partner and had been forced to throw himself on the mercy of a loan shark.

This is one of several examples where the exposition comes out of the blue, isn’t directly relevant to the paragraph, and is very clearly setting up a plot point for later. I prefer this kind of information to be slowly drip-fed, so that either I don’t pick up on it at all (common) or I notice and get to feel very smug later on (rare). It was my only real bugbear with the writing, but when I looked back at my Kindle highlights for the book, almost all of them were instances of this – which suggests that it irritated me quite a lot as I was reading!

That’s my only real complaint, though – this is an atmospheric and pacy novel, and despite the fact that I picked up on some clumsy foreshadowing, I didn’t guess whodunnit until a few pages before it was revealed. I also found that the book did indeed have a strong sense of place. The isolated Elliðaey Island is very different from anywhere I have ever been myself (though I have always wanted to visit Iceland!) and I was definitely transported. This was especially true for the sections set in rural areas – the parts set in the city were less clearly depicted. The timeframe makes sense too. Most of the action is set in 1997, so that mobile phones exist but are rare and unreliable – if the residents on the island want help, they have to radio for it. That contributes to a sense that the environment is both agoraphobic and claustrophobic at once, in a way that reminded me a little of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (no other real similarities – but the atmosphere is very similar).

Overall, I’m glad I picked this up. It was definitely a page-turner! I couldn’t sleep the other night, so picked it up at around 1am and raced through it in about four hours – continuing even after I finally got sleepy, which was of course a bad decision but shows how compelling this was. Recommended if you like this genre, but I don’t think it would win over someone who isn’t already interested in crime fiction.