After The Valhalla Murders, you wait ages for another Icelandic noir, then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of Walter Presents’ Sisterhood is Black Sands (Alibi), the channel’s first foreign-language drama and another series that portrays the famously low-on-crime nation as a hotspot for mysterious deaths and small-town secrets that threaten to consume everyone around them. By the end of the first episode, it had reeled me in, though it took its time getting there.
It is shot, with glorious gothic moodiness, around the famous black sands of Reynisfjara. The sun is low and the clouds are grey. Viewers who found House of the Dragon too dark may wish to hover one finger over the brightness settings, as this revels in its gloom. Like many a crime thriller before it, it begins with the discovery of a body on the beach, though this particular dead body is wearing sensible outdoor clothing. Has the young woman fallen from the mountainous terrain above, or is that nasty cut on her head the result of something, or someone, far more sinister?
Police officer Anita (The Valhalla Murders’ Aldís Amah Hamilton) will be our eyes and ears, but as with all good female police protagonists, she is dealing with a lot of personal issues that may or may not come to cloud her professional judgment. (She also has the required Nordic noir eye for practical knitwear.) We meet her as she is returning to the area where she grew up, for the first time in 14 years, having left her previous life in Reykjavik behind her, for reasons that become clear later on. As she hits a familiar road, she gets a phone call. There is a corpse on the beach, and chief cop Ragnar would like to know her opinion about what might have happened there.
At first, nobody seems to be particularly disturbed by the discovery. Ragnar is a grumbling curmudgeon with a grudge against tourists who have no respect for Iceland or its nature. We get the impression that he, like Anita, is dealing with a lot of personal issues. He is slapdash and hurried, and skirts procedure rather than following it. He thinks it is probably a case of a hiker with ambitions beyond her abilities. Later, at the police station, we see the vast Accidents Chart, with colour-coded pins stuck into an image of the mountains. Yellow is for an accident, purple for an accidental death, and red for a person missing and yet to be found. It’s worth noting that there is not, as yet, a colour for a murder victim. Whether they will need one remains vague, even in the closing moments of the episode, when the tension that has been teased throughout the hour finally breaks into action.
There is an earthiness to the story that makes even its more gruesome scenes seem matter of fact. When it comes to the woman’s body, it is brisk and blunt. “What do you think?” asks one officer. “She’s very stiff,” says another, crisply, without ceremony or emotion. The autopsy scene, in particular, is not for the squeamish, though it does provide an unlikely moment for the show to go meta. Over the corpse, local doctor Salómon (with whom Anita shares a spark), Ragnar and Anita discuss the merits of a crime drama they’re all watching. Ragnar says he found the reveal to be too obvious, while Salómon argues that the characters and their relationships are the most interesting thing about it.
It is mildly self-indulgent and clearly self-referential. When it comes to the death at the centre of the story, Black Sands moves at a glacial pace. But when it comes to the messy lives of those investigating it, it gets a spring in its step. Anita goes back to her mother’s house in a reunion scene that feels almost like a horror film. She is haunted by flashbacks to her youth, and the mother-daughter bond has ice running through it. Her old room is a mess, unready for her to live in it, and her mother is planning a surprise welcome-home party that seems more like a threat than a celebration.
This is a place where everyone knows everyone, and it conveys its small-town claustrophobia well. When we eventually begin to understand the tentative reasons why everyone is falling apart, Black Sands remembers itself, and throws another firework into the mix, giving its police officer protagonists a reason to do something more than mope around and argue on the phone. It is slow, but it’s meaty, and it offers just enough intrigue to make me want to return and find out what secrets the Black Sands are going to reveal next.