Death at the Sanatorium by Ragnar Jonasson Review

Research interviews for an academic dissertation turn into the investigation of a thirty-year-old double murder cold case.

Fresh off the standalone Reykjavik, co-written with Icelandic PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Ragnar Jonasson presents an absorbing classic whodunit spinoff from the upcoming television series, The Darkness.

Graduate student Helgi Reykdal and his partner Bergthora have returned to Iceland from the UK, where he will finish his dissertation for his post-grad degree in criminology. Helgi’s topic is a pair of thirty-year-old deaths that occurred in the northern Icelandic town of Akureyri in 1983 at a former tuberculosis sanatorium turned research facility. While doing the research for his paper, Helgi wants to interview the surviving staff members who worked at the sanatorium at the time of the suspicious deaths. As the story progresses, Helgi accepts a position with the Reykjavik police and his dissertation research efforts transition into a full-on re-investigation of the deaths that happened at the sanatorium thirty years before. While the police had closed the case in 1983 as a murder-suicide, some were not completely satisfied with the results. When someone murders one of the surviving sanatorium staff members in Reykjavik, thirty years later, Helgi’s new boss at the police assigns him to look again at the old case to determine whether the recent murder has a connection with the old case in Akureyri. 

This is a slow burner of a mystery, and it took me some time to get into the flow of the book. The early part of the book sets the backdrop for the present-day story with a look back in time at the deaths of two staff members that occurred at the former tuberculosis sanatorium in 1983. Ragnar takes his time in establishing the circumstances of the thirty-year-old case, which is central to understanding the present one set in 2012. The book covers two major timelines, 1983 and 2012 (present-day), and touches on a third, 1950. And while Helgi is the main character and principal narrator, Jonasson presents the viewpoints of many other characters as the story plays out. Having read many of Jonasson’s books, shifting timelines and multiple points of views are techniques he often incorporates in his writing. Sometimes multiple timelines and narrators can make a story complicated and hard to follow, but Jonasson uses these techniques skillfully. In this instance, the story moves along quite seamlessly without undue complexity.

Death at the Sanatorium reminded me of Jonasson’s early works, particularly the Dark Island series featuring Ari Thór. While Helgi Reykdal is a unique character with his own set of foibles, he did at times remind me of the Ari Thór character, my favorite Jonasson character creation, and I enjoyed this book more than some of Jonasson’s more recent novels for that reason.

Jonasson isn’t shy about admitting the time he spent translating Agatha Christie’s novels from English to Icelandic before he began writing his own books made Christie a significant influence on his writing style. As a result, like Christie, Jonasson’s works most usually take the form of classically crafted whodunit mystery novels. That is certainly true of Death at the Sanatorium. Like Christie’s novels, Jonasson’s books feature intricate plots, attention to detail, and clever twists, especially at the end. Again, we find that here.

Fans of classically crafted whodunit mysteries will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, this book will definitely appeal. Jonasson has a direct writing style with no wasted efforts and skillfully weaves the somewhat remote and forbidding Icelandic setting into his books that add great suspense and keep the pages turning.

Minotaur Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, publishes Death at the Sanatorium September 10, 2024. Victoria Cribb translated the book from the original Icelandic into English. I receieved an advance reader’s copy of the book used for this review, representing my honest opinions, from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book rating: ★★★★

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