Nordic Noir: The Case of Iceland
A guide to the alluring universe of Icelandic crime fiction.
Most Scandinavian crime fiction fans are aware of the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian books and cinema/TV productions, but in the recent few years, a new power is rising in the genre. Iceland may be a small country with a population of around 350.000 people, nevertheless, it has contributed several noteworthy additions to the genre. Iceland has the lowest murder rate in Scandinavia and one of the lowest globally, and crime author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has said that the Icelandic crimes "are extremely boring" and the tiny percentage of the nation's homicide rate is "extremely depressing for a crime writer". Nevertheless, the remote location of the country, the wild, exotic landscape as well as the extreme weather temperatures, constitute an ideal background for a crime story while the notorious Icelandic sagas of the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries, paved the way for the modern crime stories of Icelandic origin. It should be noted that Iceland has a sky-high literacy rate and the country "publishes more books per capita -3.5 books published for every 1000 Icelanders- than any other country in the world" (M. Brunsdale). The yearning of Icelanders for a good book peaks during Christmas when the new Icelandic novels first appear in Jolabokaflod, the Christmas Book Flood. The sagas, which reflect "the struggle and conflict, that arose within the societies of the early generations of Icelandic settlers" (M. Brunsdale), are rich, full of context and hidden meanings and act in the same way that myths do for the Western societies. They are written in the Old Icelandic Prose and "celebrate values typical of old Icelandic culture" (M. Brunsdale). Sagas are the most ancient Icelandic literary productions and "rank with the world's greatest literary treasures" (, while they permeate everything that is Icelandic. One of Iceland's most renowned authors is Haldor Laxness who won the Nobel Prize in Literature ( Nobelpriset I Litteratur) in 1955 and was also the writer that "renewed the great narrative art of Iceland through the epic power of his work" (M. Brunsdale). Victoria Cribb, one of the most prominent English translator of many major Icelandic authors such as Sjon, Arnaldur Indridason, Gyrðir Elíasson, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, has said that "people who spoke Old Icelandic and Old Norse were part of the community in the British Isles in earlier days, so it is also a part of our culture and heritage" (https://icelandnaturally.com/article/one-these-eccentrics-who-came-iceland-and-fell-love-language/). Most Icelanders speak English rather well and they are readers who "are as comfortable with English as they are with their own language" (M. Brunsdale).
Iceland is a country that was rather late in contributing to the ever-growing Nordic noir phenomenon. M Brunsdale, in the Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction, writes: "Recently, Iceland's relatively homogenous and highly literate population and its low crime rate have contributed to its late development of native crime fiction". Yet there is Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson who wrote crime fiction in the seventies at an era when in Iceland "the book lists were dominated by maritime stories and memoirs, as well as foreign thrillers" (M. Brunsdale). Ingolfsson's most well-known novel is The Flatey Enigma which was adapted for the television in 2018 by director Björn Br. Björnsson, but he also wrote more noteworthy crime books which were translated later in English such as House of Evidence and Daybreak. Nevertheless, the authors who put Iceland in the limelight are Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, or the "king" and "queen", respectively, of Icelandic noir.
THE KING AND QUEEN OF ICELANDIC NOIR
Arnaldur Indridason is a former cinema critic who is known to the readers mainly from his well-received and critically acclaimed Inspector Erlendur series, with eleven installments in total. It was the publication of his first crime novel in 1997 that is considered to be the cornerstone moment that foreshadowed the later boom in Icelandic crime literature. The first two books in the series were not translated so the third in order was the first to be published in English, titled Jar City (original title: Myrin), one of Indridason's masterpieces which was also adapted for the cinema screen in 2006 by the Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormakur. It is a bleak, depressive story, written in a simple, though not simplistic nor formulaic, prose and featuring the characters that we would gradually fall in love with: the grumpy, solemn Inspector Erlendur who is plagued by the disappearance of his brother in a blizzard during his childhood, his sidekicks, Sigurdur Oli and Elinbog, and Erlendur's troubled, heroin-addicted daughter, Eva Lind. Jar City is a classic police procedural with a plot that involves illegal transplants, police misconduct and the death of a little girl. There is hardly any redemption for the protagonists in the Erlendur novels and Indridason seems to embrace a rather pessimistic perspective on life in these books. The following installments are of similar quality, though I believe that books such as Voices, The Silence of the Grave, and Hypothermia stand out mainly due to their compelling plots. The last book in the series, Strange Shores, is a true gem and concludes Erlendur's saga in the most appropriate and fitting way. Indridason has also written three books in another series, titled "Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries", set in the Second World War era when Iceland was forced to host an American military base in Keflavik. The first book, The Shadow District, introduced a new duo of protagonists, Flovent, a police detective, and Thorsen, a military policeman with Icelandic and Canadian roots. The novel is narrated in two timelines, the present, and the past (1944). The same narrative is adopted in the second installment too, titled The Shadow Killer (for my full review click here) and published in 2018. There is also a third book in the series but unfortunately, it hasn't been translated in English yet. Finally, let's not forget Indridason's standalone adventure also set in World War II, Operation Napoleon, one of his least-appreciated works that lacks the depth of the author's later work. The Icelandic "king" of crime fiction has won several awards such as the prestigious Dagger Awards (2005) for The Silence of the Grave, and two Barry Awards (2009 and 2015) for The Draining Lake and Strange Shores respectively. Moreover, he has won the Scandinavian Glass Key Award (Glasnyckeln) two times, for Jar City (2002) and The Silence of the Grave (2003).
If Arnaldur Indridason is the king of Icelandic crime fiction, then Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is definitely the queen of the genre. Her novels are a fascinating blend of classic mystery, whodunit and horror fiction that enthrall the reader and keep him constantly on the edge of his seat. Her debut novel, Last Rituals, offered a first glimpse of Sigurðardóttir's fictional universe where supernatural intervention is not ruled out. Sigurðardóttir is a brilliant storyteller and in her Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series always hints on metaphysical phenomena, only to flip over the story in the final pages where everything is -satisfyingly and plausibly- explained to the reader. Thora is a lawyer, not a police detective or private investigator as usual, and also a mother trying to juggle her professional and family life successfully. She is assigned to some truly bizarre cases which always involve murder(s) and she has to use her brilliant mind to make sense of them. Thora doesn't bear the trademark characteristics of a Nordic noir protagonist as she is a rather straightforward type without having demons to face or mental/physical super-powers. She is striving to be a good professional and a caring mother and that makes her thoroughly likable and easier to identify with. The series consists of six books in total, and I adored them all, though I think that Someone to Watch Over Me and The Silence of the Sea to be the best stories in terms of plot intricacy and excellence. Nevertheless, the best novel written by Sigurðardóttir is I Remember You (original title: Ég man þig), a standalone book which is essentially a ghost story, narrated through two perspectives, that of a psychiatrist's, and a young woman's who goes to a remote village, along with two of her friends, to renovate an old house. The two stories merge into one and the ending is one of the most fascinating in Scandinavian crime fiction, leaving the reader standing in awe. The book was adapted to a feature film in 2017 by Oskar Thor Axelsson, starring Johannes Haukur Johannesson and Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir. The film was a commercial success both in Iceland and worldwide.
THE NEW WAVE OF ICELANDIC CRIME WRITERS
Today, Icelandic crime fiction features several notable authors such as Ragnar Jonasson, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Sif Sigmarsdottir, and many others. Quentin Bates was born and brought up in England but after spending a gap year working in Iceland, he decided to move permanently there. For the next ten years, he did a wide variety of jobs such as net maker, factory hand, and trawlerman while also starting a family there, thus becoming fully "native". In his time off, he began writing a crime story that would be later published under the title Frozen Out, featuring Gunnhildur Gísladóttir as the main protagonist. Today, the series has six installments and has been translated in many languages like German, Finnish, Polish and Estonian. Bates has also translated Ragnar Jónasson’s "Dark Iceland" series consisting of five novels as well as Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s "Reykjavik Noir" trilogy (for my reviews of Trap and Cage respectively, click here and here) in English for Orenda Books. Lilja Sigurðardóttir is the author of the amazing "Reykjavik Noir" trilogy (Snare, Trap, Cage), which breathed new life into Nordic noir genre, while Ragnar Jonasson is the person behind the "Dark Iceland" series, set in the secluded Siglufjörður in northern Iceland and featuring a new protagonist, the young police officer Ari Thór Arason. The series consists of five books so far, but I'm sure that there will be more. In other respects, Jonasson, an inquiring mind, started a new array of crime novels, under the title "Hidden Iceland" (for my review of the first installment, titled The Darkness, click here), having as protagonist the 64-year-old, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police Department who is forced in early retirement in the first installment, titled The Darkness. This series is a bit different than the "Dark Iceland" books as far as the general mood and characterization are concerned. Sif Sigmarsdottir wrote her debut crime novel, The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake (for my full review click here), and proved that there are more talented Icelandic crime writers, ready to leave their mark in the ever-expanding Nordic noir phenomenon. Her book's most compelling quality is the fact that it describes the Icelanders and their way of life from a third-person perspective, thus making the reader aware of how is everyday life for the average Icelander.
It is impossible to omit to mention the Stella Blomkvist phenomenon which remains a great enigma for the Nordic noir aficionados. The fact is that nobody knows who Stella Blómkvist truly is. This pen name is used by an author who has written a few crime novels and inspired the titular TV series, starring Heida Reed in the role of the rebellious lawyer, Stella. It is rumored that the nom de plume was inspired by the beer Stella Artois and Kalle Blomkvist, a fictional character created by Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren. Many years have passed since the publication of his/her first book, Murder in the Ministry (original title: Morðið í stjórnarráðinu), and the rumors about the identity of the mysterious author have gone wild as some even seem to believe that he is, in reality, the former Prime Minister of Iceland, Davíð Oddson (!). I recently read in an internet article that Stella Blomkvist has promised to reveal his/her identity when his seventh novel would be published, but he finally broke his promise leaving the readers in total darkness. The TV show became a commercial hit and will be back for the second season soon.
MOVIES AND TELEVISION
Despite the small size of the country, Iceland has produced some of the most engaging crime TV shows, especially during the last 5-7 years. The most prominent and popular example is the superb Trapped (original title: Ófærð), a show that stands out due to its great production values, amazing cinematography that fully takes advantage of the harsh landscape, and measured performances by all members of the cast. The Telegraph wrote that Trapped -for my full review click here- is “so absorbing that within five minutes I’d forgotten it was subtitled and tried turning the volume up.” while in The Daily Mail we read: “If you like crime stories set in tight-knit communities, from Broadchurch to Fargo, you won’t want to miss this.”. The creator of the series is Baltasar Kormakur who is the man behind the camera in many of the country's most fascinating cinema and television productions. Other interesting crime flicks by Kormakur are Reykjavík-Rotterdam (2008), The Oath (original title: Eiðurinn), and the Arnaldur Indridason's novel adaptation that we mentioned above, Jar City. Trapped is one of the hottest Nordic television exports of the last five years and has become a massive hit in Europe and overseas. The show has aired two seasons of ten episodes so far and I am certain that a third one will be soon in the making. Another great Icelandic show that -unfortunately- only aired one season is Case (2015), a gloomy, violent show that begins with the police finding a teenage girl hanged at the local ballet school. Is it suicide or murder? A stellar cast of the most talented and experienced Icelandic thespians such as Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir, Magnús Jónsson, and Þorsteinn Bachmann deliver great performances in this, part police procedural, part murder mystery/whodunit series. The above-mentioned Stella Blomkvist TV series (for my full review click here) is shot in a different, flashy and glamorous manner with bright colors and vivid dialogue. Heida Reed is charming as the protagonist, Stella, but the stories could be more meticulously crafted without too much emphasis on the action element but rather on the plot and character development. Keep in mind that a new RÚV/Netflix co-production has been recently aired, under the title The Valhalla Murders. The show premiered on RÚV and Netflix, on December 26th and the first trailers promise another binge-worthy Icelandic crime television show. There is violence, murder, corruption, exceptional use of the landscape, rich characterization, etc.
As far as feature films are concerned, I already mentioned the haunting I Remember You (2017), directed by Oskar Thor Axelsson and based on the titular novel by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. The movie succeeds in capturing the eerie mood and atmosphere of the book, even though the story is slightly changed. The movie was partially shot in the abandoned village of Hesteyri "in a far far away fjord of the Westfjords regions of Iceland, forgotten by the rest of the world, reachable only by boat in summer", where part of the novel was also set. The performances are top-notch and the same is true about the direction and great photography of the film. Baltasar Kormakur's The Oath (for my full review click here) is another engaging Icelandic production, starring the director himself in the role of the protagonist, surgeon Finnur, whose daughter becomes entangled into a dangerous relationship with a low-life thug, Óttar, played exceptionally by Gisli Gardarsson. Naturally, Finnur attempts to save his daughter from Óttar's dangerous influence and will be forced to do things that he thought impossible until that moment. The movie has a steady tempo and reaches a climax in the final fifteen minutes of its runtime. Kormakur is an experienced and skilled auteur who knows how to extract the most from his actors and handle a generic, non-innovative storyline. Gisli Gardarsson is the protagonist in another Icelandic crime movie, Vultures (original title: Vargur), along with the veteran Ingvar Sigurdsson and Baltasar Breki Samper whom we know from the first season of Trapped. Vultures narrates a dark, morbid story involving a teenage girl who is a drug mule, transferring stuff through the airports after swallowing them. The movie's title becomes justified in the end, so brace yourselves for a disturbing finale. Another Icelandic television show worth mentioning is The Lava Field (original title: Hraunið), a personal favorite of mine, starring Björn Hlynur Haraldsson and Heida Reed. The story is about a suicide case on Snaefellsnes Peninsula which wakes up distressing memories to the detective-protagonist, Helgi Marvin. It is a four-part series, quick and easy to watch and has many merits such as the excellent photography, the solid performances by all the actors, and an absorbing plot that keeps the viewer hooked throughout all four episodes.
Of course, it is not possible to exhaust the subject of Icelandic crime fiction here. The purpose of this article is to act as a useful guide for those who are still unfamiliar with the theme. The books/TV shows/movies that I cited above are some helpful references for beginners. Finally, I should mention the Iceland Noir Festival which is held in Reykjavik every other year. The idea for this festival belongs to Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and Quentin Bates who "were idly wondering why Iceland had never had its own crime fiction festival" (https://icelandnoir.weebly.com/), so they decided to create one themselves. The first one took place in 2013 and this year the festivities will be held at IDNO, a cultural center by the Pond in Reykjavik, from Wednesday 18 to Saturday 21 November 2020. What is certain, is that it is more than worth it to delve into the fascinating world of Icelandic noir in any form and be sure that you will be richly rewarded.
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