Though you might think the crime rate in Scandinavia has gone through the roof, to judge by its thriving crime fiction scene, Nordic countries actually have far less crime than the UK and the US. Of the law-abiding Scandinavian countries, Iceland trails its peers, with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Iceland’s official statistics bureau reports that years can pass without a single homicide; in a really busy year, police may deal with two or three murders. That seems to make it a less promising setting for a realistic police procedural series than your average British village, yet in spite of this apparent social harmony, Arnaldur Indridason has made Reykjavik home to one of the most authentic and gripping procedural teams on the international scene.
During his first US book tour last September, I had a chance to talk to Arnaldur about his writing. (In a typically egalitarian tradition, Icelanders don’t use surnames.) Born in 1961, Arnaldur is the son of a well-regarded novelist, Indridi Thorsteinsson. His first career was as a journalist for Iceland’s most prominent newspaper,Morgunbladid, followed by a longer stint as their film reviewer. In 1997 he published his first novel, Synir duftsins, (Sons of Dust). Erlendur Sveinsson, his gloomy, rumpled Reykjavik detective, made his first appearance, investigating the death of an elderly teacher in a fire as another man simultaneously seeks an explanation for his brother’s suicide. Arnaldur didn’t realize at the time he was starting a series, but seven Erlendur stories have followed, with an eighth in the works. (He has also published three stand-alone thrillers.)
Until Erlendur came on the scene, Iceland had no tradition of crime fiction. Though Icelanders are great readers, and mysteries in English are popular, only a couple of Icelandic-language crime novels were published in the previous decade. With Erlendur, Arnaldur tapped a pent-up demand. “We couldn’t figure out why we hadn’t done it before, in our own language, in our own streets,” he told me, though he speculated there was some prejudice against genre fiction, which “wasn’t considered a ‘challenging literature.’” When the third Erlendur book was published, that changed.Mýrin (Jar City; also published as Tainted Blood) became a phenomenon of the Frankfurt Book Fair, with rights sold in over thirty countries. What seemed a uniquely Icelandic series had found an international audience.
So far three volumes in the Erlendur series have been published in English translation, with a fourth on its way. All three of them involve a small Reykjavik detective team – Erlendur, Sigurdur Oli (who was trained in America and is enamored of modern policing techniques – but is not a particularly gifted detective) and Elinborg, who brings more subtlety and insight into human nature to the team.
In Jar City, an elderly man has been killed by a blow to the head with a heavy glass ashtray. It would appear an impulsive crime of passion, except for a mysterious note left on the body. Sigurdur Oli classifies it as a typical Icelandic murder: “Squalid, pointless, and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence.” Erlendur agrees, calling it “a pathetic Icelandic murder.”
As the team investigates, they learn the victim raped a woman years earlier; she bore a child who died of a genetic disease in early childhood, and this bit of medical information may just provide the key to the case. As Erlendur delves deeper into the man’s past, he brushes up against the cold curiosity of the medical establishment, first in a collection of human organs preserved in formalin, (the “jar city” of the title), then in the high-tech DNA database formed to capture every Icelander’s genetic sequence in order to conduct research on genetic medical conditions. This database project, supported by a law that gave one company exclusive rights to all Icelanders’ medical records, was hugely controversial and ultimately was rejected by the populace, concerned about privacy and about the wisdom of giving a single corporation so much control over their personal information. This issue could be the basis of a high-tech thriller, but instead Arnaldur chose to explore the human implications. What might happen to an individual when technology reveals family secrets?
The next two books in the series, Silence of the Grave and Voices, are also focused on human-scale drama rather than high concept violence. The plot of Voicesinvolves the detectives in uncovering the life history of the victim, a doorman living in a shabby room in the basement of a huge hotel. Once a year he plays Santa Claus for the tourists; this time, though, he’s found stabbed to death, his pants around his ankles, a condom drooping from his penis. As the police delve into his past, Erlendur muses on the contrast between the tourist version of Iceland and the reality.
Silence of the Grave opens with a scene that is equally striking: a medical student, bored at a children’s party, notices a baby chewing on an object that looks suspiciously like a human bone. The baby’s brother found the bone at a work site nearby, and the police are called in. As a painstaking forensic archaeologist slowly unearths the skeleton, the police try to discover who lived there in the past – and whose body is in the grave. Interleaved with the police investigation are scenes from the life of a woman who is brutally abused by her husband, trying to protect her three children while fending off his attacks. Only gradually does it become clear that her story comes from an earlier time, emerging bit by bit as the police and the archaeologist excavate the past.
The depiction of domestic violence in Silence of the Grave is both sadly realistic and extraordinarily vivid. “It is hard to read,” Arnaldur told me, “but it’s even harder to write. Writing about domestic violence is a challenge. Sometimes I just had to stop, take a break, in the worst scenes, because you don’t want to compromise, you have to be honest. I know it’s a very harsh story but I chose this issue because I think it’s the most despicable of crimes. It’s a hidden crime, with innocence involved.”
Currently in the works is a translation of The Draining Lake, a story that also has roots in the past. “We had an earthquake in Iceland in the year 2000, a very big one,” he told me. “There is a lake just outside of Reykjavik, and a crack opened up at bottom of the lake.” When water level dropped, revealing shoreline that had been hidden, he immediately thought that would be an interesting way to find a body.
In a country with such a low homicide rate, solving crimes committed in the past can keep fictional detectives employed without an unrealistic spike in crime. It also gives the author an opportunity to explore the ways Iceland is changing. Both Arnaldur and his detective are perturbed by many of the developments. “People are moving by the thousands into the city and the young people don’t want to live in small villages. This is a big change we’ve had in Iceland in the last fifty years, the huge movement of people into the Reykjavik area and it’s connected to tensions in society over the years, from being a very poor, peasant society to a very rich modern society.”
It isn’t just economics and life styles that are in flux. “The language, the heritage, the old sagas, the history of Iceland, not many are thinking about it,” Arnaldur told me. Erlendur, who grew up in the countryside, doesn’t like the impersonal life of the city. He enjoys traditional cuisine, even though he seems to live on frozen dinners and fast food, and he chides his daughter for using trendy words and phrases that aren’t native to Iceland. As Arnaldur explained, contemporary Icelandic is closer to the language of medieval sagas than other Scandinavian languages and Icelanders work hard to preserve it.
Yet though these stories have a strong sense of place, they also have a universal appeal. The cases Erlendur and his team investigate are based on human failings that are recognizable everywhere. And Erlendur’s moody, crotchety approach to his work is based on deep empathy for its victims.
“He’s a bit of an enigma to me,” Arnaldur said. “His family life is a complete mess. But his professional life is brilliant. He’s a very good detective and he feels for the victims. He’s a very nice human being, but he left his children and he hasn’t seen much of them. His daughter makes him realize his responsibility.” Eva Lind, a recurring character in the series, is a drug addict. Her relationship with her father is needy and resentful, but in each book the possibility they will forge a lasting relationship grows a little stronger. Arnaldur told me Erlendur’s estranged son may make an appearance in the eighth book. “We have it in every family, tension between fathers and sons, fathers and daughters.”
Arnaldur turned to writing crime fiction in part because of his interest in film. “I like suspense. Hitchcock is my guy. I wanted to write a book like that.” A film based on Jar City was released this fall in Iceland; though Arnaldur chose not to be involved in the script, he was pleased that the top talent in Iceland’s film industry was involved, including the director and the actor chosen to play Erlendur. Arnaldur’s other influences include the Martin Beck series by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who “write in the style of social realism, like I do” and the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain. “He’s a very fine writer, with a very simple style, never a big, big plot, just plain, simple police work. They knock on doors, telephone people, and they get to know what happened.”
The Erlendur series is equally spare in style, its narrative power coming from careful narrative structure and subtly-shaded characters. The focus is on crimes that are not the epic battles between good and evil so often featured in thrillers, but rather on the small tragedies that are the more common stuff of real crime. It turns out these “typical Icelandic murders” that Sigurdur Oli complains about can provide gripping material for mysteries that strike a common chord while introducing readers to a small, cold country with a long and powerful storytelling tradition.