Review: ‘The Darkness’ is insightful character study

This cover image released by Minotaur shows "The Darkness," by Ragnar Jonasson. (Minotaur via AP)

“The Darkness” (Minotaur), by Ragnar Jonasson

Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson takes a major chance — that works extremely well — in “The Darkness,” the launch of a new series about Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir. Rather than meeting the Reykjavik, Iceland, detective at the beginning or even the middle of her career, Jonasson introduces Hulda at the end of the career that has been her lifeline.

Hulda’s swan song as a detective, as well as other choices Jonasson makes, might not seem as if the author could sustain a series based on this character. But “The Darkness” melds an insightful character study with a solid plot for an outstanding novel and shows how he could sustain this as a series.

A widow whose only child died decades ago, the perpetually depressed Hulda has lived for her work ever since. She thrives on this job, despite being passed over for promotions that have gone to younger and less qualified men. The 64-year-old dreads that mandatory retirement is near, but that’s next year. She’s shattered when her boss, Magnus, tells her that she will be leaving in two weeks. She’ll get her full salary but the department needs to make room for a less experienced man who’s been hired.

As a consolation, Magnus tells Hulda she can work on a cold case of her choosing before she leaves. Hulda plunges into the case of Elena, an asylum-seeking Russian woman whose death was ruled a suicide. Hulda quickly realizes that her colleague’s investigation was, at best, careless. Hulda’s sense of justice energizes her, despite raising the ire of Magnus, who says he really didn’t mean for her to start an investigation.

While “The Darkness” takes a grim path, Jonasson elevates the plot with a compelling look at a detective who has dealt with extreme personal losses and worries that she is facing a retirement, and old age, alone. Angry at having dealt with sexism and ageism, Hulda has never stopped being a good detective, a situation even Magnus is forced to acknowledge. Hulda is not the easiest person to like — prickly and strident — but Jonasson finds many layers to his new character.

Hulda may be at the close of her career, but Jonasson is just getting started with this new series.

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