The Darkness is set in 2011, with Hulda aged sixty-four and about to retire. Her struggle against the police department’s glass ceiling never succeeded but as a sop before retirement she is permitted to work on one final cold case. She chooses the seemingly accidental death of a Russian woman found on the shoreline. We follow Hulda’s plodding but relentless investigation, only for the tables to be turned by an ending so surprising it seems to violate the genre’s core conventions. This is followed by a postscript that, in retrospect, becomes a coda to the trilogy itself. Jónasson’s reverse structure is brilliantly effective, with the future eerily foreshadowing the past. As he has commented: “You really do want to challenge the form. You know the rules, and you want to break them in your own way”. The beauty of this trilogy is that each book enraptures us almost to the point of forgetting the future we already know – but then we remember. The Mist, entirely satisfying in its own right, gains depth and pathos from our knowledge of Hulda’s life to come.
Wrap up warmly for this invigorating Iceland-set slice of Nordic noir from Jónasson. Obstinate Detective Hulda is pushed to the edge, struggling with problems both personal and professional as she tackles two difficult cases. The reverse storytelling here is dispatched adroitly, completing a trilogy that began splendidly with The Darkness.
The Mist is a triumphant conclusion to the trilogy and makes Iceland’s pre-eminence in the crime genre even more marked. But why is there so much interest in violent crime in a country where few people have experienced it? Jonasson hints at the explanation in an author’s note, recalling the Icelandic tradition of giving books as presents on Christmas Eve. He describes how he would read his favourite authors, including Agatha Christie, late into the night. With its short winter days and extreme weather, the country has always placed a high value on storytelling, both in the form of novels and in its age-old sagas. Icelanders grow up on these stories, which, like crime fiction, are full of betrayals and family conflicts, and may offer a clue as to why a nation that has so few murders is able to produce such superb crime writers. And Jonasson is up there with the best.
Other writers — notably Jeffrey Deaver in The October List (2013) — have explored the possibilities of telling a story in reverse, but thus far no one has rendered hindsight so heartbreaking. Hulda’s tragic fate, sealed at the end of The Darkness, casts a heroic light on her thwarted career and self-contained personal life. Each part provides a satisfying mystery in itself, but to get the most out of this terrific trilogy you need to read the books in order of publication. It is nothing less than a landmark in modern crime fiction.