A few weeks ago, Quentin Bates—author of Thin Ice—wrote a wonderful blog post about how difficult it is to execute a successful crime in Iceland, making it even more difficult to write a successful crime novel set in Iceland:
At the end of the post, we asked YOU, the readers, to put on your thinking caps and ask Quentin a few questions. The response was incredible! Thanks for all the great questions!
So, without further ado, here are Quentin's responses!
Todd Henson (thedelfrog) asks:
As a photographer, I find myself endlessly drawn to the beautiful landscapes of Iceland, both natural and with man-made components. What part, if any, do the scenery and landscapes of Iceland play in your writing: setting, plot, inspiration, etc.?
The landscape is always there. Even in Reykjavík, Mount Esja is there across the bay, and the slopes are especially imposing in winter when it’s covered with snow.
To an extent, I guess I’m more conscious as an outsider of the scenery and landscape than a local writer would be. I’m writing from an outsider’s viewpoint with a foreign readership in mind. The local color isn’t something I’ve grown up with, and I can’t take it for granted—while a local observer might hardly even notice those snow-covered peaks a few miles away.
I’m a great believer in the first five days in any place being the key ones. In those first five days, you notice the smells, the colors, and the oddities. After five days, they start to become part of the backdrop and less noticeable.
In the first book in the series, I deliberately set much of the story outside Reykjavík. I had seen plenty of books by Icelandic writers with a wintry mountain scene on the cover, yet, with a thick slice of urban noir inside. I wanted to use a more rural, wilder setting, and would have preferred to stick to that as a backdrop, but the publisher was definitely more interested in an urban setting—hence the shift to the city from the second book onwards.
But, I can’t keep the landscape out, and I somehow always manage to place some of each book in the countryside or a coastal area—as that’s the part of Iceland I know best. I never lived in Reykjavík, and my years in Iceland were spent in the north and the west, where the landscape is even more immediate and imposing—and sometimes dangerous.
Patrick Murphy (Ditch) asks:
Do you read any of the other well-known Icelandic mystery novelists? Yrsa [Sigurðardóttir], for example.
In fact, there are only five Icelandic crime writers in print in English—there’s Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Árni Thórarinsson, and Ragnar Jónasson. I’ve read books by all of them—and translated three of Ragnar Jónasson’s.
I’ve read several who deserve to be translated into English and haven’t been, such as Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Jónína Leósdóttir and Ævar Örn Jósepsson.
It always strikes me as strange that English-language publishers in the UK and the US are always way behind publishers in Germany, France, Spain, and elsewhere. There are so many Nordic novels (not just Icelandic ones) that only make it into English after they have been available for years in other translations.
Do any of the characters share characteristics with anyone you know?
It says in the front of every book that any resemblance to a real person is purely coincidental. But it would be impossible to not include facets of people you know, even if it’s not done consciously. I know what Gunna looks like and have a model for her—but only I know who that person is. On the other hand, that person’s nature and character are very different from Gunna’s.
There’s no one person who is based on anyone real, but many of the characters have traits of characteristics drawn from life.
The drugs kingpin, Alli, is based indirectly on a real person. But, I allowed myself that liberty, as this was someone I've never met who is now dead. So, Alli’s circumstances are based on those of someone real, but I had to invent the character to fit. However, the house in Thin Ice where Alli lives belongs to a friend of mine.
Here at Criminal Element, we wanted to know:
You mentioned “going native” in the northern coast for 10 years—what’s it like living in an area with such a small population, so far from everything?
I’d say it’s fine if you have family and friends around you; it’s a nightmare if you’re on your own. As a foreigner, it’s very easy, under such circumstances, to retreat into spending all your time with whatever other foreigners are about, as isolation brings people together. But, it’s not a healthy thing to do as you can find yourself even more isolated. So, it’s important to make the effort to get to know the local people as well, otherwise you can easily find yourself living in a self-imposed ghetto without any real insight into how the local population lives.
Back then, things were also very different. There was no internet; there weren’t even faxes. Making an international phone call was no easy matter, and people wrote letters on paper. If the weather was bad, there were no flights, and no flights meant no post and no newspapers. Electricity was also a lot less reliable then, and power blackouts, when the lines had been blown down, were regular features of every winter.
We also asked:
You said there is very little crime in Iceland—did you encounter any crime or witness anything nefarious while living there?
The only crimes I encountered were fishy ones—landing boxes of fish unweighed so they weren’t counted against the boat’s quota, and boxes of cod that were marked as haddock or ling in the logbook. And there’s quite a lot of illicit booze produced in Iceland, as bar prices are steep, to say the least. So distilling moonshine is a widespread cottage industry these days.
When I lived there, there was even less crime. The most serious crimes were traffic offenses and various misdemeanours committed under the influence of much alcohol. There was even a murder in the next village, something that’s extraordinarily rare, and definitely an alcohol-related crime.
Things were so peaceful that we never locked the house, and I don’t think there was even a key to the back door. We’d go on holiday for a couple of weeks, leaving the house unlocked. Once I had to drive to Reykjavík for some reason, and I decided it might be an idea to lock the car while I was there—except I found out that the locks were all completely rusted up through lack of use. I don’t think that car had ever been locked.
Well, that's it! We want to thank Quentin Bates for his wonderful post, Iceland: A Locked Room Mystery on a Grand Scale, and for his insightful answers to everyone's questions. Follow him on Twitter and show him some love @graskeggur.
We'd also like to thank our audience for all of your great questions—give yourselves a round of applause.