Icelandic noir by Quentin Bates

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Iceland is awash with crime these days. Not criminal activity exactly, but crime fiction. After years of languishing in the shadows as being something that proper writers didn’t do, crime has come into its own and there seems to be something new hitting the shelves every other day.

Books tend to be the fallback option for a Christmas gift in Iceland, so the pre-Christmas market is crucial to Iceland’s publishers with the bulk of the year’s sales taking place in a matter of a few weeks, providing the activity that sustains Iceland’s publishers through the lean rest of the year, so it’s no surprise that the bookstore shelves are filling up.

Like practically every business in Iceland, publishers are on the rack, dealing with a changing market. Margins are tight and budgets aren’t what they used to be. It’s also a tiny business and doesn’t have the same hierarchies as publishing in the UK or the US. There are no literary agents – the population of writers and publishers simply isn’t big enough to support them. Publishers have to cope with changing tastes. Ebooks have yet to take off in a big way, although a significant readership uses them to buy primarily English-language books – which highlights another problem. The Icelandic publisher who had translated Ian Rankin’s books told me a while ago that he had been forced to give that up. It wasn’t that the books weren’t excellent. The issue was that too many people would buy and read them in English and wouldn’t bother to wait for a translation – Iceland’s publishers are competing with a reading public that is just as at home in English as in their own language.

In spite of having long been seen as the preserve of foreign writers, therefore translated into Icelandic, Iceland has a patchy tradition of crime fiction that goes back a long way. Húsið við Norðurá (The House by the North River), was written by Guðbrandur Jónsson in 1926, but the first true Icelandic crime story has long been reckoned to be the 1939 Allt í Lagi í Reykjavík (All’s Well in Reykjavík) by Ólafur Friðriksson.

While crime fiction was popular, it wasn’t considered literature, explaining why Ólafur Friðriksson (Ólafur við Faxafen) and Guðbrandur Jónsson ((Einar Skálaglamm) wrote under vaguely transparent pseudonyms.

Incidentally, while I have a copy of Húsið við Norðurá, Allt í Lagi í Reykjavík isn’t easy to find these days and if anyone has an unwanted copy lurking on a shelf, I’d love the hear from you.

For a good few years things seemed to go quiet. Birgitta Halldórsdóttir produced roughly one book a year for a long time. But Desmond Bagley and other translated writers dominated the Christmas bestsellers, plus a few authors producing the occasional homegrown crime story or two, almost as a diversion from something more serious.

Then Arnaldur Indriðason appeared on the scene in the late 1990s and changed everything, not least because foreign publishers also wanted his work. The first of  November every year has become marked down as the day the ‘new Arnaldur’ appears in plenty of time for Christmas. It’s something that has become a significant, eagerly anticipated event. This year it’s Reykjavíkurnætur (Reykjavík Nights) that’s being dissected and discussed around the water coolers and in workshop canteens all around Iceland.

Steeped in film as the cinema critic of daily newspaper Morgunblaðið, as well as being the son of respected author and critic Indriði G Thorsteinsson, Arnaldur really did take Icelandic crime fiction to a new level and also made the breakthrough into translation with his sparse, tightly plotted stories about the wonderfully dour Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir followed with her own brand of crime fiction featuring lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, and between them Arnaldur and Yrsa are the king and queen of Icelandic crime with numerous translated editions in a dozen languages.

Crime fiction had became mainstream; respectable, even. Iceland’s current education minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, even completed a university thesis that focused on crime fiction.

Iceland isn’t a huge market and few writers can write full-time. Some have ‘proper’ day jobs while others double up in journalism or elsewhere in the arts. There are a few old hands out there, such as Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson who works as a civil engineer, journalist Árni Thórarinsson and acid-tongued filmmaker and currently maverick Member of Parliament Thráinn Bertelsson. These days there’s also a host of newcomers, their work ranging from acceptable to brilliant and available in a range of languages from Spanish to Czech – but sadly there is precious little so far in English.

There’s material for a whole essay on why English-language publishers have overlooked Icelandic crimewriters so far, especially as German crime aficionados have plenty to choose from. As well as Arnaldur and Yrsa, German readers have Ævar Örn Jósepsson, Stella Blómkvist, Thráinn Bertelsson, Árni Thórarinsson, Ragnar Jónasson, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Jón Hallur Stefánsson, Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Ottar Martin Norðfjörð and Stefán Máni to choose from.

So who to look out for, and you heard it here first… Ragnar Jónasson started in his teens translating Agatha Christie into Icelandic and now has four novels of his own under his belt. While there are well-received German translations, none are yet in English, but it’s a surely just matter of time.

A book by oddball artist and writer Hallgrímur Helgason, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, is now available in English. Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson’s remarkable Flateyargáta (The Flatey Enigma) is also out in English and due to be followed by others. Viktor Arnar has been around for a long time, having published his first book in his twenties. Árni Thorarinsson’s Season of the Witch is now available in English.

Then there’s Ottar Norðfjörð, Óskar Hrafn Thorvaldsson, Thráinn Bertelsson and others, plus a few new ones who have just appeared in the last few pre-Christmas rush weeks. There’s a host of talent there waiting to be discovered, and it’s a shame that German and other European readers are so much better served than their UK or US counterparts, so far. There’s plenty more Icelandic noir waiting in the wings.

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Quentin Bates
3 comments on “Icelandic noir by Quentin Bates
  1. You may be interested to know that Stefan Mani’s ‘The Ship’ was published by an Australian publisher, Murdoch (as far as I know, nothing to do with Rupert!) But I agree, the Germans and others are far better served than English readers. The other issue is that tantalising 30 month wait for Arnaldur’s books to come out in English. I rely on my Icelandic friend’s comments in the meantime. She doesn’t give too much detail of the plot, fortunately.
    I would also love to see Arnaldur’s earlier books be translated into English. He is one of the very best, and I class him as a writer of fine literary fiction as much as a krimi, for his creation of Erlendur alone.

  2. Interesting… Stefán Máni has been published in French and German, and seems to be doing well. But everyone seems to be better served that English-language readers. I wonder if it’s the climate publishers live in that make UK and US publishers so reluctant to take a punt on translated stuff?
    I’ve read Arnaldur’s early books, including the first one. In fact, I read that for a UK publisher who wanted a synopsis and an opinion. It wasn’t a very good book. It was interesting, and Erlender was an engaging character even then, but the plot was so wildly far-fetched that it didn’t warrant translation. He has certainly improved with practice, and I’m not sure that his books aren’t better in translation than in the original.

  3. I think publishers and particularly the chain bookshops are reluctant to take a punt on anything. The stock in Australian bookshops over the past few years has dwindled down to the sure-fire sellers, and they get a bit huffed if one asks them to order something in. I’ve had to buy every Halldor Laxness book bar one during holidays in Iceland, and half of the Arnaldur ones.
    Shame about the early Arnaldur books: I’d heard that before.
    I loved The Flatey Enigma, but had to buy that one from Nordic Store too. How can such a tiny country produce so many good books? (and films, and music, and food…!)

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