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The Last to Disappear: Immersive Lapland mystery zips along like breathless husky ride

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Setting a high bar: Jo Spain, author of The Last to Disappear

Setting a high bar: Jo Spain, author of The Last to Disappear

The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain

The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain

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Setting a high bar: Jo Spain, author of The Last to Disappear

There was a footballer back in the day — was it Ian Rush? — about whom the saying went: “Like the Royal Mail, he always delivers.” No matter the circumstances, this guy could be relied on, every time, to get the job done.

In terms of crime-writing, Jo Spain is the Irish equivalent; like An Post, she always delivers. Alongside Jane Casey, she’s the guaranteed gold-standard of domestic thrillers, albeit the two women come at it from slightly different angles.

Casey’s books are more serious in tone, even sombre at times, and mostly part of a series. Spain began with a series that now alternates with standalone novels that are fast-moving, cleverly and slyly plotted — and, most of all, hugely entertaining.

You open a Jo Spain novel and know from the start: this will be great fun.

Last year’s The Perfect Lie the Dubliner moved her fictional setting outside Ireland for (as far as I can tell) the first time. Set in America, it retained an Irish connection in the form of heroine Erin.

In her latest mystery, The Last to Disappear, Spain severs the national umbilical cord almost fully: it takes place in Finland, the central character is English and the only Hibernian connection is a supporting player.

Alex is a thirtysomething from Yorkshire, working for a London lobbying firm and slowly losing his soul and marbles. Younger sister Vicky is something of a free spirit, making her way around the world in casual jobs, forever scrounging money and making Alex feel uncool or inadequate in some way.

Eventually, fed up of her capricious behaviour, he decides not to give Vicky his new phone number. So when her body is pulled from a lake in Lapland, shock and grief are compounded by guilt.

Alex travels to Koppe, a small tourist town way up in the frozen north to identify the body and bring Vicky home. Then he finds out, through local police chief, Agatha, that foul play is strongly suspected, and things get complicated.

Vicky had gone missing six weeks previously. Colleagues at the ski lodge that employed her — including Niamh, the Irish interest — had assumed that this flibbertigibbet just upped and left without saying goodbye.

Coroner examinations suggest a blow to the head before she drowned; not an accident. Alex, driven by a broiling mix of emotions — some subconscious, some not — feels compelled to stay in Finland and get some kind of payback for his murdered sister.

Spain adroitly assembles a line-up of possible suspects: the hulking reindeer farmer rumoured to have murdered his wife in the 1990s (this story slowly plays out in flashbacks); the sleazy owner of the lodge, grabby with the female staff and always on the make; the American tourist seen leaving a bar with Vicky on what might have been her last night.

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Alex blunders around, asking the wrong questions and sometimes the right ones, getting in the way and annoying Agatha — though a certain kinship is struck between the two, almost without either noticing that it’s happening.

Spain also stirs into the mix a number of subplots, some of which may be connected to Vicky’s killing. A troubling secret from Alex’s past; someone called Luca who seems to be a dark terror in the minds of Agatha and her three children; two other instances of women who went missing in the area over the last two decades. Does Koppe have a serial killer?

It’s tremendous fun, zipping along with the breathless excitement of a husky ride and as sure-footed as a veteran skater floating across the ice. But not only fun: Spain creates sympathetic and plausible characters, people you believe in and root for; and she draws a vivid, immersive picture of Nordic life and death.

As more than one person points out more than once to Alex: places like Koppe may look chocolate-box pretty when you’re just visiting for a week. Life is tougher there than outsiders think, though, with long months of total darkness, weather so cold that you have to wrap up like you’re preparing to voyage into deep space, enormous areas of forest and lake where hardly anyone lives and it’s easy to fall down a snow-covered slope or freeze in a blizzard.

Nature here is red in tooth and claw. There may, as per crime writer Lawrence Block, be eight million ways to die in the naked city; inside the Arctic Circle, those ways can feel virtually infinite.

The Last to Disappear is possibly Spain’s best mystery yet, which given the high bar she’s set, is a hell of a compliment. Her work is like a cold can of Coke and instant-classic pop song — or, yes, the Royal Mail: they always deliver.

Thriller: The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain
Quercus, 390 pages, trade paperback €18; e-book £7.99

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The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain

The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain

The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain

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