The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson—face-paced suspense and quality writing from one of today’s top crime fiction authors.
Una wants nothing more than to teach, but she has been unable to secure steady employment in Reykjavík. Her savings are depleted, her love life is nonexistent, and she cannot face another winter staring at the four walls of her shabby apartment. Celebrating Christmas and ringing in 1986 in the remote fishing hamlet of Skálar seems like a small price to pay for a chance to earn some teaching credentials and get her life back on track.
But Skálar isn’t just one of Iceland’s most isolated villages, it is home to just ten people. Una’s only students are two girls aged seven and nine. Teaching them only occupies so many hours in a day and the few adults she interacts with are civil but distant. She only seems to connect with Thór, a man she shares an attraction with but who is determined to keep her at arm’s length.
As darkness descends throughout the bleak winter, Una finds herself more often than not in her rented attic space—the site of a local legendary haunting—drinking her loneliness away. She is plagued by nightmares of a little girl in a white dress singing a lullaby. And when a sudden tragedy echoes an event long buried in Skálar’s past, the villagers become even more guarded, leaving a suspicious Una seeking to uncover a shocking truth that’s been kept secret for generations.
“Teacher Wanted At the Edge of the World.”
Ragnar Jónasson, the author of the bestselling Dark Iceland series, set in and around Siglufjörður, and featuring Detective Ari Thór, returns with a standalone thriller that has an attention-grabbing concept behind it. Una, a young woman just short of thirty, has never come to grips with her father’s premature death. After showing promise as a medical student, Una decided she didn’t want to be a doctor after all and instead became a teacher. But she cannot secure employment offering more than a pay slip to pay slip existence, and she cannot face another winter staring at the four walls of her shabby Reykjavík apartment.
When Una’s closest friend, Sara, shows her an advertisement in the local paper for a teaching position in the tiny, isolated fishing village of Skálar, Una thinks the position might offer a chance for her to make a fresh start and get her life back on track. She applies for the job and gets hired almost immediately. Sure, she reasons, Skálar is a remote hamlet with a population of only ten souls, far from Reykjavík and almost at the end of the world on the Langanes Peninsula. But the teaching contract is only for the winter. If things don’t turn out to her liking, she can always return home. What could possibly go wrong?
Feeling hopeful, Una embarks on the long drive to Skálar. But the closer she gets to the village, the more remote it seems. When she finally arrives, feeling a sense of foreboding and with her old car seemingly on its last legs, Una doubts the wisdom of her decision. Still, Salka, the woman who hired her seems welcoming. She is the mother of one of Una’s new students, a class comprising only two girls. Salka provides Una’s accommodations, an attic flat in her home, which seems adequate.
It doesn’t take long before Una realizes the other inhabitants of Skálar aren’t nearly as welcoming as Salka. She finds the hamlet a close knit community that seems distrustful of outsiders. Strange occurrences begin in the attic of the house. A sudden tragedy echoes an incident from the village’s distant past. The villagers become even more guarded and less accepting of Una. Eventually, she discovers why. The people of Skálar share some awful secrets.
From the start, The Girl Who Died seems almost cinematic. So, it didn’t surprise me when the book brought to mind an old 1955 American crime thriller film, Bad Day at Black Rock, directed by John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan. The premises of the film and Jónasson’s novel are similar. A stranger comes to a tiny town that possesses a terrible past the inhabitants want to keep secret, by any means necessary. The Girl Who Died also has something of a Stephen King feel to it.
I’ve been a fan of Ragnar Jónasson since reading Snowblind, the first book in the Dark Iceland series. The Girl Who Died showcases the same brilliant writing style as found in the Ari Thór novels. In this book, Jónasson introduces us to most of the characters on a first name only basis, which curiously seems to make our interactions with them even more intimate than if we knew their surnames. I particularly liked that aspect.
Jónasson also gives us a bit of added insight by putting us into the heads of two additional narrators.
“He had never killed a man before. Had never come close, despite his sinister reputation.”
Early on, we get two quick glimpses from the perspective of an unidentified male character hired by a criminal gang to murder two gang associates who have fallen out of favor, and later, a recurring look from the view of a nameless woman who the police arrest and the court eventually convicts of the murders committed by the anonymous male even though she was innocent of the crimes. Near the end of the book, we learn the identity of the unnamed male murderer, but the identity of the wrongfully convicted woman remains a mystery.
The sparing use of the nameless murderer’s perspective early in the book makes sense as it gives us additional insight into the overall story when we learn the man’s identity and his role in the plot near the book’s conclusion. But I found the recurring appearance of the anonymous female narrator less interesting.
The anonymous woman’s perspectives didn’t seem closely related to the plot or overall story beyond informing us of her wrongful conviction for murders she didn’t commit. After her first two appearances, everything about her jail confinement experiences and angst over spending time in prison for crimes she hadn’t committed could be removed with no impact on the plot or general story. Perhaps I just missed something, but I never understood why the author gave that character the recurring emphasis he did.
The plot is far from predicable. Expect nice twists, nail-biting suspense, and a touch of the paranormal that helps move the plot forward but doesn’t overpower. The verdict—don’t miss this one if you enjoy face-paced suspense and quality writing from one of today’s top crime fiction authors.
The Girl Who Died is due out May 4, 2021. It is available now for preorder from your favorite bookseller.
I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley for the purposes of this review.