Living on an island by Quentin Bates

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Right now I’m finishing a a short story set in Iceland, the kind that gets sold as a Kindle-only effort at a minimal price. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it’ll be out early next year, a few weeks ahead of the next book. I’m working on the denouement and (without wanting to give too much away) the villain’s attempted escape. Of course that means the airport and that’s what made me scratch my head. We’ve been here before, surely?

That’s one of the restrictions of setting your fiction on a lump of rock in the middle of the Atlantic where only a few people live. In Britain or mainland Europe, you can disappear. Admittedly, it’s not as easy as it might have been before CCTV, computers and all the paraphernalia of the nanny state watching over us, but it can be done. A few generations ago, just moving forty miles and calling yourself by another name would have done the trick, but today there’s an electronic and document trail that makes the process harder.

In Iceland, forget it. You can’t hide. There’s one city and a handful of larger towns. Everyone has a registration number without which you can’t function and everything from paying a speeding fine to getting a doctor’s appointment is done on line – with that ten-digit series being an integral part of all that.

It makes life easy in some ways. Opening a bank account or paying a bill is done at the click of a mouse. No forms to fill in, nothing to sign. But it has its sinister aspects in that every aspect of a person’s life is there in ‘the system.’ You want to disappear – or, in a crime writer’s case, you want a character to disappear. Can’t be done, at least not without going abroad and that means escape through the airport. Yes, airport. There’s only one. There are other ways, such as occasional flights abroad from other places, or by sea, but both are precarious and unreliable. So the airport it has to be.

You can’t just vanish. It’s one of the reasons Iceland has so few bank robbers.

By that I mean the traditional stocking mask and sawn-off shotgun bank robbers rather than the more successful of briefcase wielding species who don’t do their robbing over the counter with menaces.

Let’s say you pull a successful heist and screech away from a branch of Landsbanki with a black bin liner full of used notes. What the hell are you going to do with it? You could buy a car. OK, you probably would buy a car to replace your burned-out getaway vehicle. So what do you buy?  A new car? Nice idea, but somebody’s going to notice, especially if there’s been a bank robbery in the news and you turn up in a dealer’s showroom with wads of used notes. So you’ll have to settle for an old banger like the one you used to have, maybe a year or two newer and perhaps with a better sound system.

But you still have a lot of cash left over, so you tell your lousy boss and that sour-faced wife of his to take a running jump. You stay in bed until mid-afternoon for a few weeks, have some great nights out and a lot of takeaways, plus a thick bunch of readies will make sure you wouldn’t be short of female attention.

Apologies, ladies, but I’m assuming only a man would be foolish enough to pull a bank heist in Iceland.

So what next? Buy a house? Nope. Somebody’s going to notice if you try and buy a house with a bagful of cash, especially if you’ve just told your boss just where he can stick that crappy job and you’re now unemployed. Oh, don’t forget that sooner or later the taxman is going to notice you’re not working and will take a look at your lifestyle and assets in comparison to your (supposedly) non-existent income. More questions.

So move across country, maybe to one of those quaint fishing villages on the east coast where nobody knows you? Think again. A stranger in a small town with no visible means of support and not short of cash. That means… Yup, questions, and don’t imagine you can go anywhere where nobody knows you. If they don’t know you, there’s someone who knows your dad, or who knows your brother’s first wife’s previous husband, or who was at school with your sister best friend, or who just recognises that flash car and knows who you bought it from.

Go abroad! That’s the answer. But hang on. These are Icelandic krónur. Iceland has currency controls which mean you can only buy so many euros, pounds or dollars, plus – you guessed it – somebody at the bank (quite possibly the one you robbed to start with) is going to notice and ask a few questions.

So skipping the country isn’t a practical option either unless you want to try smuggling all those used notes through the airport (yes, singular) and then try to find someone in Holland or Britain who wants to buy your Icelandic currency at a knockdown rate.

If you really want to hide the money, you’d have to start a business and work hard so you can launder your own cash, which defeats the object as you robbed the bank to start with so you wouldn’t have to work hard. Own goal, I’m afraid.

So that leaves just one option. Use all that paper to stuff your mattress and spend it slowly, a few luxuries here and there, not enough to attract attention, at least not until inflation has taken such a slice out of your hard-won, ill-gotten gains that you might as well just use it to, well, stuff a mattress.

So while you’re lying on that lumpy mattress, watching the 72” TV you bought with the bank’s money, just think back to how you should have paid more attention at school, got a degree in finance and made some of the right friends – and that way you could have got the right job and robbed the bank a lot more successfully from the inside instead.

So, kids. That’s why you should always do your homework.

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Quentin Bates
6 comments on “Living on an island by Quentin Bates
  1. Brilliant. Agree 100%. The take on the outside is not that great. Plus about 20% are caught and go to jail. On the inside the take is much, much higher. If you win, you win big. If you lose, you still win big. It’s not capitalism, it’s a mixed economy. And I cannot recall one person going to jail for robbing a USA bank from the inside, can you? I miss capitalism.

  2. Sounds like a great place to live in some ways – speaking as a basic honest, law abiding citizen. How does it work for other crimes? 100% clear up rates perhaps. I can see how it gives you problems as an author – but surly the basic safety of it all is nice for a person.

  3. Sadly, no.
    Petty crime is now very widespread, much of it drug-related, and the police and the judicial system as a whole are massively overburdened. Serious crime tends to get dealt with pretty fast, but minor break-ins, car theft, muggings, etc don’t get the attention they deserve or that the police would like to give them.
    Then there’s the financial crime and the whole Crash thing in which the banks were robbed from the inside. That’s going to take years to clear up and may never be properly dealt with – especially if there’s a ‘banker-friendly’ government in place after next year’s elections.
    As Kevin said, it’s not likely for these people to end up behind bars, although it has happened.
    These are people who can afford the smartest lawyers (and probably went to schol with them) and these cases are also incredibly complex, demanding huge resources to handle.

  4. I know what you mean – but that is true world wide I’m afraid. And has been for generations – I sometimes think of banks as yet another form of taxation – rob the poor to give it to the rich. Sadly I will never be rich enough to benefit, but fortunately am poor enough not to have much to lose. I’m much more concerned about violent crime myself – so if that is what you mean by serious crime I’d love to move in!

  5. Iceland outside Reykjavík is fairly crime free,, although if something’s not nailed down, it might well disappear.
    Reykjavík is much the same as anywhere else in Europe in terms of crime. There’s approximately a murder a year, for a city of around 200,000.
    The odd thing is that it has changed so rapidly, from being a virtually crimeless society a generation ago to being thoroughly on a par with the rest of western Europe. I’m not talking about financial crime and political corruption, as those have always been there, but more theft, violent crime, drugs, etc.

  6. How about a collaborative bank heist? – meaning in the interest of many and not only in the interest of one (or few). Ok, it might sound like a modern “Robin Hood”, but there were a lot of people sharing the same problems: loss and anger. Icelanders might not be familiar with thoughts of revolution, but isn’t an “internal string” possible?

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(since July 15th, 2009)