Crime Scene - - AGATHA CHRISTIE SPECIAL - By An­dre Paine

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.

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