The recent explosion of Icelandic crime fiction offers a valuable mirror to the economic realities now facing this beleaguered nation.
Ashes to Dust: an eruption of violence
Ashes to Dust
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton
Hodder & Stoughton
The global financial crisis hit Iceland in 2008. Icelanders called it "the kreppa", and felt it with greater immediacy and profundity than perhaps anywhere else in the world. A cataclysmic banking collapse exposed what many believed to be a deeper malaise at the heart of contemporary Icelandic society. Widespread public disgust with the status quo led to a government-toppling internet revolution. A stand-up comedian was elected as mayor of Reykjavik. When the giant ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption brought the world's aviation industry to a standstill, it seemed that even the nation's landscape was in revolt.
And yet, amid all this gloom, Iceland's publishing industry has remained buoyant. Last year it racked up €22 million in domestic book sales and published 1,500 new titles. There are only 317,000 Icelanders, but each adult buys eight or nine books a year. What's more, those books are increasingly the work of home-grown crime writers, a trend which seems strange when one considers that Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir still works as a civil engineer in Reykjavik. Her writing career began with humorous children's fiction but she grew tired, she has said, of "having to be funny all the time" and turned to murder with her first adult novel, Last Rituals, published in Iceland in 2005. Ashes to Dust is her third piece of crime fiction to be translated into English, and its international publication closely followed the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Sigurdardottir's publishers must have shed tears of joy when the giant ash cloud appeared: the plot of Ashes to Dust also hinges on a volcanic eruption, this time the one that buried the tiny island community of Heimaey under a thick blanket of lava and ash in January 1973. The coincidence, you may be sure, figured heavily in the book's publicity.
Ashes to Dust features Sigurdardottir's regular crime-solving heroine, the attorney, divorcee and mother of two Thora Gudmundsdottir. A long-suffering detective in the Wallander mould, Thora's character is swayed as much by the pressures and neuroses of her personal life as she is by the twists and turns of her latest case. As Thora picks her way through murder, rape and self-mutilation, she still finds time to lament the state of her wardrobe, involuntary celibacy and the relative shortcomings of her ex-husband. Luckily for readers, Thora's knack for solving mysteries is matched by the author's relish for the macabre. Take this enjoyably ghoulish sequence, from Last Rituals:
"'One final thing, Frau Gudmundsdottir.'
She turned round.
'I forgot to tell you why I am convinced that the man in police custody is not the murderer.'
'He didn't have Harald's eyes in his possession.'"
The new novel opens with an ingenious and grisly murder told from the victim's perspective. In a seemingly unrelated chain of events, Thora has been hired to block the archaeological excavation of her client's family home, buried under volcanic ash on Heimaey. When three preserved corpses and a severed head are uncovered in the cellar and the corpse on page one turns out to be the client's childhood sweetheart, he is suddenly implicated in all five killings.
To unravel the mystery, Thora has to negotiate the insular culture of Heimaey and the Westmann Islands, an archipelago near Reykjavik untouched by the forces of modernity, capitalism and globalisation that are seen to have transformed life on the mainland.
Here familiar scenes unfold. Locals are distrustful of outsiders and the police are a law unto themselves. As the Heimaey's inspector of police explains: "It may be that you work differently in Reykjavik, Madam Lawyer … There, you presumably go by the book, as they say, although one never actually knows which book they mean. Here, on the other hand, I am in charge."
As ever, Thora finds herself trying to balance the needs of the investigation with those of her own children, a new grandchild and her ambiguous long-distance relationship with a German ex-policeman whom she met in Last Rituals. The action skips between Heimaey and Reykjavik, and between the events surrounding the eruption in 1973 and the fictional present. Indeed, the complexity of this scheme seems to overwhelm the author, who is forced to resolve her Byzantine plot with an unconvincing and long-winded confession just as the action reaches its climax.
Sigurdardottir has rather predictably been described as Iceland's Stieg Larsson, a comparison which sticks insofar as both explore male-female relations and sexual violence towards women. But it ignores the more convincing (yet harder to market) similarities between Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason, the godfather of Icelandic crime fiction.
Both authors make striking use of the Icelandic landscape not merely as a scenic backdrop but as an active component in their plots. Just as Sigurdardottir uses the eruption of the Eldfell volcano as the trigger for Ashes to Dust, Indridason had the falling water levels of Lake Kleifarvatn reveal the bodies in his earlier novel, The Draining Lake. Both authors use historical murders to drive their narratives without creating unrealistic spikes in the homicide rate. Both select locations that contrast instructively with contemporary Icelandic life. As Sigurdardottir writes in Ashes to Dust: "Although Thora was no specialist on the Islands' community after two short visits, she felt that it reflected certain characteristics of the whole country in the not so distant past. Iceland before the age of capitalists. Iceland when most people were on almost equal financial terms and the wealthiest men were the pharmacists."
Perhaps this nostalgia lies at the very heart of the recent fictional Icelandic crime wave. In Ashes to Dust the characters all seem to be searching for meaning in a society that has entered a bewildering state of flux. An islander frets that his non-local wife is being seduced by the promises of consumerism: "What if this was her first step in the direction of the freedom she desired so much, and that her mind associated with Reykjavik: the freedom to shop and wander from one cafe to another, the freedom to let her girlfriends envy all her material possessions?"
The author's social criticism is equally unequivocal when Thora asks her client about his brief period on remand, he says: "I feel like I'm in limbo. I don't know what's happening out in the world, I'm not allowed to read the papers or even watch the news on television. I've got a lot of stocks in foreign markets, and this is completely unacceptable. I could be losing tens of millions."
There's an irony in the fact that almost any foreign market would have been a safer place for his millions than Iceland was over the past two years. More striking, though, is the fact that this most unexpected of growth industries - crime fiction set in a country almost without crime - should turn out to be selling morality tales about Iceland's recent cultural and economic transformation. On the other hand what better time to start asking where the bodies are buried?
Nick Leech is a regular contributor to The National
Other new fiction
The Salt Road
The Moroccan desert got its biggest marketing boost since Lawrence of Arabia as the actual set of Sex and the City 2 this year, so the fact that the publishing industry seems to be following its trail is hardly surprising.
The Salt Road, the second of Jane Johnson’s Moroccan-inspired novels, will likely please fans of the genre, with bodice-ripping language such as “I felt his breath hot against my neck” and “I can see there is a wildness in you”. (Admittedly, we are not in that camp.)
Isabelle, a Chanel-wearing corporate tax accountant, travels from Britain to Morocco after her archeologist father bequeaths her a mysterious amulet; her story becomes entwined with that of a nomadic princess and rolls along to a somewhat predictable end.
The author’s own similar story sounds more interesting, however. According to her website, Johnson worked in publishing then, while on a visit to Morocco, a climbing accident “caused her to rethink her future”, prompting her to move there to marry her “own ‘Berber’ pirate”. Now that’s the kind of story we might want to read.
Lights out in Wonderland
Faber and Faber
Gabriel Brockwell, a self-declared anti-capitalist prone to bouts of excessive consumption, states his intention to commit suicide before setting off on a journey through some of the most indulgent gastronomic cities in the world. His adventure becomes a surreal dream, but depending on how you see it, it could be an epicurean’s worst nightmare as well.
Dirty But Clean Pierre (as Peter Finlay was nicknamed by friends during a decade of dissipation) won the Booker Prize in 2003 for his black comedy Vernon God Little. That novel told the story of a high-school massacre through the eyes of Vernon, a wisecracking teenage boy who escapes the killing and then finds himself implicated in it.
Lights Out In Wonderland completes a loose trilogy that includes Pierre’s second book, Ludmila’s Broken English. If Vernon had grown up, developed a taste for globetrotting and a talent for finding himself in bizarrely decadent set pieces, he might look something like Brockwell. Yet the brilliance and satirical focus that made Vernon God Little so powerful is missing. Lights Out has its moments, but it lacks the shine of Pierre’s debut.