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The Hidden Iceland trilogy: a crime story told in reverse

Looking through notes from 2014, I came across an email I wrote to my publisher and agent.

I had just finished the fifth book in my Dark Iceland series about young policeman Ari Thor and was thinking of where to go after that. The email in question was a one-page pitch for a new series that I had been thinking about. The headline was: “The best thing about the darkness is that it makes the shadows disappear”. And the email goes on to outline a new series featuring a 64-year-old female detective called Hulda – her name literally meaning “elf-woman” from Icelandic mythology.

The first bullet point was as follows. “Series – chronologically reverse: The first book focuses on Hulda’s final case, with the series subsequently focusing on her earlier cases.”

Right from the beginning, even before a word was written in the first book, this was, in my mind, the key to the series. Chronologically reverse.

I wanted everything about this new series to feel completely different from my first series. The protagonist of the Dark Iceland series is a man and in his twenties when we meet him in Snowblind. Hulda is a woman close to retirement when we meet her in The Darkness. But somehow I felt this wasn‘t enough. I had to turn everything on its head, so why not start with the last book, Hulda‘s final case, and then work backwards from that…

Her life story was more or less fully formed in this original email to my agent and publisher, so all I had to do was to give her three cases to work on at different stages in her life, and then tell her story to readers. It was a challenge but also very rewarding. Writing books two and three, I knew more about her future than she did, so her actions could be reflected back and forth through a series of events and memories. I also knew that the same would apply to readers. They could read books two and three knowing all about Hulda‘s future…

“One of the most gifted detectives in the Reykjavik police force, but has never reached her full potential professionally, continually hitting a glass ceiling in terms of promotions at the force.” Another quote from my original pitch, and this was also a topic I was interested in exploring in detail throughout the series. The national police commissioner of Iceland is now a woman, a sign of how the times have finally changed, but Hulda’s career is a constant struggle in this respect.

“A modern woman in many ways, but nostalgic in other ways, driving a 40 year old car and preferring boiled fish to more current delicacies.” In a way, the series probably has a nostalgic feel to it, as I had to go back to the 1980s and the 1990s in order to stick to the original plan of showing her life in reverse. But that also opened up some possibilities, as it is in some ways easier to write crime novels in a classic tradition, focusing on psychology and old fashioned clues, in the time before mobile phones and DNA … And incidentally, the next two books I wrote after finishing the Hulda series were set, partly or fully, in the mid-1980s.

“She is fit, likes the outdoors and feels much younger than her age, and can’t believe that retirement is looming. Harbors a fear of the loneliness that comes with retirement, although she would be the last one to admit it.” Retirement was a key part of the first novel, but in essence the process of ageing is a key theme throughout the series, just with this one twist: On paper Hulda has found a way to grow younger with every year…

“She is a widow, and lives alone in a small, dilapidated apartment in Reykjavik, with a limited view, in the shadows of larger buildings, having been left with high debts and a mortgage when her husband passed away, resulting in her having to sell their home – a large house on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Their old house was close to the sea and the nature, with birds singing in the garden and northern lights in the backyard during winter nights; a place she misses every day.” Although Hulda works for the police in Reykjavik, I felt that the Icelandic nature would have to play a part in the series, so each book takes her out of the big (small) city. The Mist is set in the eastern part of Iceland, in a small house far away from any town, in the dead of winter. The day before Christmas, a stranger appears out of nowhere, and Hulda is left to solve the mystery when bodies are found after the holidays.

Her last case, for now at least. But maybe we’ll meet her again, a little bit younger than before…

The Mist

Ragnar Jonasson

Ragnar Jonasson, author of The Girl Who Died
Ragnar Jonasson, author of The Girl Who Died
Ragnar Jonasson

Ragnar Jónasson is an international number one bestselling author who has sold over one and a half million books worldwide. He was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he also works as an investment banker and teaches copyright law at Reykjavík University.

He has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, and, from the age of seventeen, has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s novels. His critically acclaimed international bestseller The Darkness is soon to be a major TV series.

Follow Ragnar on Twitter.

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