Canadian Scott Mackay has been contributing stories to EQMM for twenty-five years, and a number of those tales have received favorable critical attention, including February 1998’s “Last Inning,” which won the Arthur Ellis Award for best short story. (Several other stories by Scott Mackay have been nominated for that award.) The author is also a mystery novelist, with thirteen books in print, eleven of them recently purchased by Audible for issue as audio books. In this post he talks about a mindset that’s particularly hard for a crime writer to let go of—even on vacation. Readers will find a new Mackay story in EQMM’s March/April 2015 issue.—Janet Hutchings
I was driving across the black-sand plains of Myrdalssandur to see the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokoll, when I pulled my rented Toyota Yaris to the side of the road to behold yet another of Iceland’s bizarre and compelling sights. Dark basalt columns rose from the black sand like teetering stacked coins. They looked like nightmarish tombstones to me. I couldn’t help thinking that even though Iceland has the lowest murder rate in the world—one in a hundred thousand—its jagged and raw landscape provides the ideal backdrop for one.
My wife and I undertook this daunting road trip a number of weeks ago, 2,436 kilometers around the entire country, every hundred meters bringing riveting vistas of craggy and picturesque starkness, snapshots of a land that, for a crime writer like myself, made me think of the dark and brooding subject matter of my trade.
We motored through numerous lava fields— solidified mafic flood fields with not a tree, house, building, or billboard in sight. I thought, what a perfect setting. My mind turned more and more to murder.
The macabre theme was further encouraged when, my wife taking the wheel, I dipped into a Reykjavik English newspaper, The Grapevine, while she negotiated a particularly expansive lava field, and I read an interview with Snorri Magnusson, one of Iceland’s top cops.
He talked about the missing. The missing and the murdered, it seems, overlap considerably in Iceland.
“Over decades and decades in Iceland, people have gone missing without anyone ever finding them. They just sort of disappear.”
The Olympic redundancies in Magnusson’s words aside (that people go missing, and no one ever finds them, and they sort of disappear) his statement struck me as a too-trusting investigational framework. He added nothing about the possibility that these victims might have been murdered. Also, when Snorri Magnusson made his statement to The Grapevine, perhaps he was thinking a lot like the rest of the population.
You see, many Icelanders blame at least some of these disappearances on elves.
You sigh once again at the blogosphere.
Let me explain.
Though Iceland is a forward-thinking country, boasting the world’s first female democratically-elected head of state, a ninety-nine-percent literacy rate, and universal healthcare coverage, sixty-two percent of its highly-educated public believe in elves. So when a person goes missing, particularly in a lava field, where elves purportedly live, some say they were taken—these, apparently, are not nice elves.
How entrenched is the belief in elves? Recently, elf activists blocked the building of a highway from the Álftanes Peninsula, where President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. No construction will go forward until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on motions brought forth by activists who say not only cultural and environmental issues are at stake but also the plight of elves. The activists are particularly concerned about an elf church, really a lava formation, that sits on the site. The Huldufólk, or “hidden folk” as they are known, affect construction so regularly that the road administration often halts work so the public can grow convinced that the elves have had a chance to move on.
Is it any wonder, then, that many unexplained disappearances are blamed on the Huldufólk?
Without doubt the land itself lays claim to some of these missing victims.
My wife and I, for instance, had our own close call when we took a wrong turn trying to find Hengifoss, one of Iceland’s plentiful waterfalls. We ended up driving up a narrow mountain road to a snowy peak. No guardrails. No shoulders. The road was marked only by yellow pikes. The wind howled. Clouds moved in.
The clouds got so thick, I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. At the top, we entered a tunnel a kilometer long, and it also was filled with cloud, and, more terrifyingly, was single-lane, shared both ways—I had to guess whether a car was coming from the other direction. We exited onto a sudden hairpin turn with no guardrail and vertiginous drops on either side. We could have easily gone over. My wife and I could have disappeared. Not gone fishing. Gone missing.
The Reykjavík Grapevine recounted how two boys, Oskar Halldorsson and Julius Karlsson, aged fourteen and fifteen, went missing on the night of January 14, 2013 in the lava fields east of Keflavík, on the Reykjanes Peninsula. January 14, as you might imagine in Iceland, is a night nobody should be out on, but there Oskar and Julius were, having fun up near Keflavík Airport.
The boys were last seen running and laughing down a street toward the lava fields. Local residents assumed they’d gotten into mischief and were running away. When they disappeared, some suggested the Huldufólk. Perhaps even the murderer himself suggested the Huldufólk. How sad that these two young boys should, to use Snorri Magnusson’s redundancies, just disappear, go missing, and never be found again. If it wasn’t murder, it had the same impact as murder. I pity the grieving families. I’m sure they didn’t believe the elves did it.
Of course, it’s possible that the boys could have gotten lost in all that lava—it goes on for fifty kilometers.
And it’s not only lava that’s easy to get lost in. Iceland has its deserts.
When my wife and I came to the Highland Desert of Eastern Iceland, where the landscape was eerily similar to pictures the Viking Voyager beamed back from Mars—rock-pitted sand in a panorama of dunes and ridges, a windswept frigid horizon, a sky that looked as if it were brightened by only the smallest of suns—I understood how easy it was to get lost in Iceland. In the Highland Desert, as if to discompose me further, I found, with nobody around for miles, a black statuette of a nineteenth-century fisherman twelve inches high, put there as if by the little folk—the elves having a little lost-at-sea joke.
In this dangerous land of fire and ice, police can’t be too concerned with murder because, miraculously, it happens only once a year. They have to be more concerned with protecting people from the land itself, the country’s true murderer.
We climbed the volcano, Grabrok, for instance, in sixty-kilometer-per-hour winds. The volcano climb could have made us statistics had not a lone Dutchman, white with fear coming down, warned us off the caldera.
We careened along gale-raked Atlantic-and-Greenland-Sea coastal roads in a tiny car that could have potentially been blown over the unrailed drops into the rocks below.
We climbed glaciers where the crevasses were man-eaters.
The land, then, is a genuine threat to Icelanders, as well as to tourists: the lava fields, deserts, mountains, and glaciers, not to mention the sea, kill a number of locals and tourists every year. Police spend most of their resources getting foolhardy tourists out of trouble from these beautiful but hellish spots. They are more a rescue organization than a law-enforcement one. And as crime is practically nonexistent in Iceland, and police focus more on rescue and not on actual lawbreakers, they have, over the years, like Snorri Magnusson, become trusting. Perhaps too trusting from my North-American perspective. They don’t even carry guns.
To further illustrate that trust, I relate an incident from near the end of my stay. It happened when I boarded my Icelandair flight home.
As I went through the security checkpoint, unbeknownst to me I had a knife in my carry-on—I thought I had stowed it in my check-in—a Swiss-Army knife with scissors, a can-opener, and a nail file, nothing too terribly dangerous, useful to a tourist like myself, but still a knife. The beeper sounded.
A young officer—the police run customs there—found the knife. He said he was going to have to confiscate it. With some disappointment—the knife had been a gift from my grandfather—I said fine. The officer then gave me a sympathetic glance and said he would talk to his supervisor. He came back and said I could keep the knife. I was allowed to board my Icelandair flight home, along with three-hundred innocent passengers, armed with a knife that looked somewhat like a box cutter. This trustful lapse left me wondering: Do they believe a murder suspect when the murder suspect says the elves took their victim?
Perhaps I go too far. This is not meant to be an indictment of Icelandic law enforcement. Quite the contrary. The young officer’s trust was a good thing. And if I’ve painted Iceland as a bleak and inhospitable land, it’s not entirely that way, for the south is often green and pastoral. I’ll never forget the night my wife and I stayed on a working farm near Brunnholl. The first sight that greeted us was a Nordic goddess of a young Icelandic woman with long blond hair. She was clapping some cows along a country road against a backdrop of mountain-girded glaciers. Iceland, in these moods, defies murder. And while in some of its Mars-reminiscent landscapes it might be the perfect setting for it, North America, statistically, is a much likelier locale for the grisly business of my trade.
Is it any wonder, then, that when those two boys, Oskar Halldorsson and Julius Karlsson, walk out into the lava fields on the night January 14, 2013 and disappear, go missing not fishing, and are never found again, I, coming from a gun culture, suspect foul play. In Iceland, they graciously point to the lava fields and suggest elves.
So I don’t indict the young airport officer for his trust. I applaud it. The failing is mine. It started, I think, with the Tylenol tampering incident years ago, escalated with the Bernhard Goetz/New York subway vigilante shootings, and matured with Columbine, so that my own mistrust, like that of so many North Americans, has hardened like lava hardens in Iceland.
It makes me think I want to come not from a gun culture but from an elf culture.