The Town at the End of the World: Review of The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar Jónasson’s latest mystery includes one of the best hooks I’ve read recently, although, curiously, it is not the book’s opening line: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” Feeling adrift in her life in Reykjavik, Iceland, Una applies for and then accepts a teaching position to work with two students in the isolated village of Skálar which consists of about ten people. Upon arrival, Una rather quickly revises any idyllic notions she had of the smallest of small-town living. The repeated hauntings of a young girl singing a lullaby and playing the piano in the middle of the night within Una’s apartment only enhance the town’s grim winter atmosphere. Meanwhile, as Una tries to determine if these hauntings are real or simply nightmares, Jónasson interweaves her story with first-person accounts of a murder and wrongful conviction that initially has no relationship to the town of Skálar.

Photo Courtesy of Visit North Iceland

Jónasson is a skilled writer who manages to convey nuance without overwriting or slowing his narrative’s pace. I felt immersed in the story very quickly despite never having been anyplace like Skálar, or even Iceland for that matter. Una’s backstory and upbringing, although parsed out throughout the course of the novel, portrayed a complicated character with conflicting motivations and impulses that made her an interesting protagonist to follow. In addition to his characters, Jónasson’s setting is also unique among so many metropolitan mysteries complete with an experienced police detective. According to the author’s note accompanying my Net Galley copy, Skálar is a real place, although it was abandoned several decades before the 1980s setting of The Girl Who Died. (See the image above for a glimpse of the real-life Skálar.) The town provides an ideal location for a Gothic mystery with so many layers of history waiting to be excavated. In fact, the remote setting paired with the child ghost and Una’s teaching position was all reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Ultimately, though, Jónasson fails to fully capitalize on this environment. Just as the novel’s various strands come together the book is over, and it’s a credit to the writing that I wanted The Girl Who Died to continue. Without revealing any plot points, I wished Jónasson had written further about the ramifications of the various mysteries he unravels. He sets up so ably the struggle to join a community but then doesn’t really explore the cost of belonging once a character like Una joins such an exclusive group as the town of Skálar.

Even with these criticisms, I look forward to reading more of Jónasson’s work, particularly the Hulda series which received excellent reviews. If you’re not yet ready to travel this summer, The Girl Who Died would be a wonderful escape into a completely different physical and psychological landscape.


Get Me to the Church on Time: PBS Premiere of Grantchester

As spring rainstorms give way to humidity and mosquitoes, my thoughts turn to mystery and murder, particularly the PBS kind. I know that summer has truly begun when the network’s mystery lineup begins.

Robson Green and Tom Brittney in Episode #5.1 (2020)

This year Grantchester kicks off the PBS summer mystery season on Sunday, June 14th at 9pm. Based on a series of books by James Runcie, the TV series has retained the original premise of a vicar and police detective solving crime in the quintessential British village of Grantchester. (It does not retain all the books’ original characters as last season saw vicar Sidney Chambers (James Norton) replaced by Will Davenport (Tom Brittney).)

Grantchester’s mysteries tend to veer away from violence and gore and towards moral quandaries, ideal thematic ground for a policeman and minister. Despite its cozy trappings of fifties conformity, Grantchester consistently looks more critically at life in this decade by depicting gay characters, women working outside the home, and couples’ marital troubles.

Five seasons in Grantchester contains a fair amount of serialized storytelling as opposed to being a straight procedural. However, it’s not so complex that new viewers should be put off from joining the congregation. The excellent supporting cast make the show’s character work equally as compelling as its mysteries (sometimes more so). Of particular note are Leonard, a fellow clergy member, played to perfection by Al Weaver, Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), the vicarage’s housekeeper, and Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth), the detective’s much-too-good-for-him wife.

Far from a mindless escape from reality, Grantchester takes you to a different time and place with plenty to consider. Tune in and let me know what you think!