“Crime Writing in Iceland? Really?” (by Ragnar Jonasson)

Unlike most of our Passport to Crime authors, who find their way to EQMM through their translators, Icelander Ragnar Jonasson submitted his own work to us. He had translated the first story he sent us (January 2014’s “Death of a Sunflower”) himself, and he wrote the second one (“A Letter to Santa”—just out in our January 2015 issue) in English. Ragnar is also the author of the Dark Iceland series of crime novels, set in and around the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjordur, which he tells us is “only accessible via mountain tunnels.” Rights to two books from that series, Snowblind and Nightblind, were recently sold to the UK publisher Orenda Books. Snowblind is due to be released in English translation in 2015 and Nightblind in 2016. The series is also published in Iceland and Germany. In addition to writing, Ragnar works as a lawyer in Iceland and teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University. —Janet Hutchings

Global peace index 2014. Guess what country ranked number one? Yes, Iceland. It also ranked as the number one most peaceful country in the world in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008. . . . You get the picture. So this begs the question: Is it really possible to write crime stories set in Iceland?

Let’s also bear in mind that we currently have a population of 328,000 in Iceland. So the pool of suspects in any crime story is fairly limited!

Yet, people keep writing crime stories in Iceland—but this hasn’t always been the case.

The first Icelandic crime novel appeared in 1926, but in the following decades Iceland only saw a handful of books in the genre published—a total of seven novels between 1926 and 1950. Then, following quite a long period during which no crime thrillers were published, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (House of Evidence, The Flatey Enigma) started something of a trend in Icelandic crime writing. But it wasn’t until 1997 that crime fiction really took off. That was the year that trailblazer Arnaldur Indridason (Jar City, Silence of the Grave) published his first book. Until then, crime fiction had struggled to find readers, particularly because the general view was that Iceland could not be a believable setting for crime stories. Indridason really convinced us otherwise and, following 1997, there has really been no turning back, with an increasing number of titles published each year—and Icelandic crime more often than not topping bestseller lists.

Indridason very successfully entered foreign markets, including the English/US market, as have many of his colleagues, including Yrsa Sigurdardottir (My Soul to Take, I Remember You). In fact, Iceland has become such a popular place to set crime fiction that two English authors have set series there: Quentin Bates (Frozen Assets, Cold Comfort) and Michael Ridpath (Where the Shadows Lie, 66°North).

So, how can peaceful Iceland work as a setting for crime?

Firstly, there is one common belief about Iceland that isn’t necessarily true: “Iceland has no weapons.” Well, yes, we don’t have any military. And the police don’t usually carry guns (although there is some ongoing debate about whether to change that). But there are certainly weapons in Iceland. Historically a nation of hunters, people keep quite a lot of hunting weapons, including shotguns and rifles. According to some figures, there are approximately 60,000 weapons in Iceland—a lot when you bear in mind the fact that the population is 328,000. A few years ago, Iceland was ranked fifteenth in the world for the number of firearms per capita.

Secondly, crime writers have used some of the extremes of Iceland to their advantage to create an atmosphere of darkness and mystery. Darkness being the key word—Iceland gets very dark in winter and in some cases, in the northern part of the country, doesn’t see any sunlight for long periods throughout the winter months. The other extreme can also be useful for stories—the fact that summer has very, very long days, with midnight sun and bright nights. We also have weather to suit many types of crime stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yes, indeed! In Iceland, you can get sunshine, rain, heavy storm, sleet, and snow—all in the same day! And let’s not forget the northern lights—murder under the northern lights is certainly an interesting premise.

Thirdly, writers in Iceland have been able to emphasize the setting, focusing, for example, on Icelandic nature, isolated small towns, or the area around the capital, Reykjavik. In terms of nature, the high mountains can provide a backdrop for murder, as can the large glaciers and volcanoes—many of which are still very active. The Icelandic highlands also offer an interesting setting, a vast area in the middle of the country in which it is very easy to get lost! Iceland is very sparsely populated; people mainly live in either the Reykjavik area or in smaller towns along the coastline, picturesque fjords surrounded by mountains. Some examples: Arnaldur Indridason’s recent Strange Shores is set in Iceland’s eastern fjords; Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s I Remember You is set in an isolated western fjord and her My Soul to Take in the area nearby a famous glacier, Snaefellsjokull; and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson sets his Flatey Enigma on the small, picturesque island of Flatey.

Iceland is actually a place of extremes in more sense than one. We tend to collectively share some unusual hobbies. Every year, on a Saturday evening in May, the streets of Iceland are empty and everyone is glued to the TV, when the European song contest Eurovision is being broadcast live. We always proudly send a competitor from Iceland, certain that this is the year we will win. We haven’t won yet, though. The streets are empty when the Icelandic national handball team competes in major tournaments, and we are, once again, always sure that we will win the world championship title. We haven’t won yet. And right before Christmas, Icelanders buy lots and lots of books—the biggest titles probably selling between 20,000 and 30,000 copies (again, quite a lot per capita). We call it the Christmas Book Flood, and most new fiction is released in October or November, in time for Christmas.

Fortunately, Icelandic readers have become very supportive of homegrown crime fiction, enabling more local writers to focus on Icelandic crime, and the genre has found readers all around the world. We even have our own crime festival, Iceland Noir, in Reykjavik, held for the second time in November of this year.

Crime writing in Iceland? Really? The answer is yes. And hopefully we can continue to keep the momentum going, finding fresh and exciting new ways to create stunning crime fiction in this small and peaceful country.

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