RAGNAR JONASSON CHRISTIE WITH A NORDIC TWIST
Plenty of crime writers can claim Agatha Christie as an influence, but for Ragnar Jonasson the connection goes deeper. The Icelandic author in effect became a Christie collaborator when, as a teenager, he was employed as her translator. “I started reading Christie, translating her and subsequently writing books,” he tells Crime Scene, “so you could say she’s had an impact. Evil Under The Sun was the first one I read, and I was just hooked.”
Fans of his debut, Snowblind, recognised a Christie connection in his story about rookie cop Ari Thor investigating a murder in the idyllic, isolated small town of Siglufjordur in northern Iceland (where the author spent childhood summers). When the town is cut off by an avalanche during 24hour winter darkness, this claustrophobic mystery feels like a Golden Age detective story given a contemporary Nordic twist.
Peter James, Ann Cleeves and Ian Rankin have praised Jonasson’s debut, which became a bestseller. The followup, Nightblind, won a Dead Good Reader Award, and the books have been optioned by a British TV company. “The fact that it gets this reaction in the UK is brilliant, especially because I’m a big fan of the British crime tradition from the time of Agatha Christie and beyond,” Jonasson says. “They were books I grew up reading and probably influenced me quite a lot.”
Christie had a specific influence on Ari Thor: Jonasson deliberately made his hero young because of Christie’s regret over introducing Poirot as an ageing, retired detective in 1920. “At the back of my mind I thought this is maybe a lesson Christie can give me,” says Jonasson. There have since been three books in his Dark Iceland series, and at least two more on the way.
When Crime Scene meets him in London ahead of a bookshop event, he admits he’s seen The Mousetrap several times on his UK trips. He reckons The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd is Christie’s best (“such a brilliant book”) and prefers Poirot to Marple.
His friends thought his teenage Christie obsession was “strange”, but it paid off. “I had the confidence at 16 or 17 to go to the publisher,” he says. “My mum drove me because I didn’t have a driver’s licence. I just asked them if they needed someone to do the next translation. I didn’t really think they would call me because I was just a kid, but a few days later they actually did.”
His first job was translating Endless Night, which had not previously appeared in Icelandic. He eventually translated 14 Christie novels including The Body In The Library, Appointment With Death and Five Little Pigs. He soon realised that although Christie’s prose was not difficult, the plotting could be challenging. “The clues are sometimes even hidden in words,” he says. “The most challenging one was Lord Edgware Dies, because that has a major clue at the end of the novel which is basically an English word, and when you translate that word into Icelandic it doesn’t work. So, some things you can’t really translate perfectly, but I did my best.”
When it came to writing his own novels, Jonasson cites the influence of Christie in terms of playing fair with the reader and creating an atmospheric setting: “She was very strong when it came to making the setting almost like a character in the books, whether it was the Nile or the Orient Express or a country cottage in snow. I love describing the Icelandic weather, because it’s an important factor and hopefully adds colour and gives you a sense of place.”
Jonasson is also promising a festive feel later in the series. “Breathless, the fifth one, is my Christmas story – Christie had Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and I love reading crime fiction set at Christmas, there’s something cosy about that,” he says. “It’s an isolated house in the middle of winter and there are a limited number of suspects, so I would say there are some nods to Christie in that book.” For Jonasson, it seems Agatha Christie is the gift that keeps on giving.
Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout (Orenda Books) are out now.