Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Something old, ...

This time around I am going to take the easy way out - post an old essay I wrote for the Mystery Readers Journal in 2007 about writing crime fiction in relatively crime-free Iceland (please note that at the time I had no idea about our more than fair share of white collar crime). Apologies to anyone who has already read it, I promise to make up for it later by posting something so fresh it will still be kicking.

A mere 300.000 people live in Iceland. It therefore stands to reason that Icelandic crimes are relatively few and far between. This is a quite good state of affairs for the general public but extremely depressing for a crime writer, especially considering the fact that the few crimes committed are excruciatingly boring. There is seldom any question about the identity of the culprit as 99,9% of the population are not into serious crime, leaving the police 300 suspects to work from. Considering that half of these 300 people have already been incarcerated, police investigations are not a mammoth task in Iceland as they do not require a great sense of deduction, simply time. It is therefore quite a challenge to write a crime novel that takes place in my small country and yet manage to make it interesting and plausible. No one, least of all Icelanders, are willing to read a full length book about a murder which occurs in a kitchen following an argument between two drunken men – one of whom happens to pick up a butcher knife to emphasise his point. Particularly not when the murderer is apprehended by the police ten minutes later, still standing in the kitchen holding the murder weapon and wondering what the hell possessed him to do such a thing. As a result, the typical Icelandic murder as described is hard pressed to hold up even a short story. An Icelandic murder lacks motive and the murderer is never egged on by any evil impulses, merely stupidity and impaired judgement.

Of course there are some exceptions to the above. Two cases jump to mind, one of which involved a man that tried to kill his girlfriend by setting her on fire, only to have his plans foiled when his lighter did not work. The girlfriend, doused in gasoline, managed to escape while he was busy trying to coax a flame from the lighter and headed straight for the police station. He was charged and found guilty of assault as the judicial system considered it impossible to prove attempted murder. The other unusual case was the man who tried to make his suicide look like murder to collect insurance for his heirs. He went a bit overboard as he not only stabbed himself in the chest but also hit his own head repeatedly with an iron bar and cut his throat with large wire clippers from a construction site. Obviously this should have had the police scrambling to find the sadistic and brutal murderer on the loose if it were not for the stroke of genius that made the man lock his door from the inside so as not to be disturbed while attempting to take his own life. It should be noted that despite this unfortunate man’s obvious eagerness to depart this world he did not succeed – he was revived and remains amongst us, a bit scarred but none the worse for wear all things considered.

In addition to the lack of ingenuity common to most Icelandic criminals there are other factors that keep Icelandic crime uninteresting. To name one, the courts always pass the same sentence for murder no matter what the circumstances. This sentence is called a life sentence but is in actuality 16 years. It is unclear how the relationship between life and 16 years came about but is perhaps a remnant from the days when life expectancy was somewhat lower than in today’s society. Whatever the reason, no one holds their breath during murder trials and reporters can probably write their articles in full at the onset. Another factor is the investigation technique used by the police force to solve cases which involves gathering up the suspects, putting them in solitary confinement and waiting for them to confess. Given that they seem to have an unlimited time period for which to keep people locked up without charges this usually results in a confession. There is little or no CSI required as clues like cigarette butts and saliva droppings do not often enter the frame.

To be fair Iceland does have a special elite police unit called the Viking Squad. Members are allowed to carry guns, unlike regular policemen who are only armed with clubs. These men also get special training which focuses on making them adept at crawling on their stomach in ditches. To a layman this does not seem particularly up to date as the last ditch has long been removed from modern day Reykjavík but at least Icelanders can sleep soundly knowing that if a crime is ever committed in a ditch, the Viking Squad will certainly be prepared. As this has yet to occur, this elite force does not have much opportunity to justify its existence and the few times they are in the media it is usually because of some fiasco. One of their media highlights was when they were photographed standing ramrod straight, in bullet proof vests, backs against the wall, trying to coax out a dangerous criminal that has been observed welding a particularly menacing shotgun which turned out to be a vacuum cleaner nozzle held by an old lady cleaning her curtains. Another example is the attempted recovery of a body from the bottom of a nasty canyon which turned out to be a dummy used by the Icelandic rescue squad to practice rescuing people off the bottom of nasty canyons a year previously. It stands to reason that the staged rescue failed miserably since the rescue squad left the dummy behind. The Viking squad was unfortunately no better and the dummy still rests at the bottom of the nasty canyon.

All of this probably relates to Iceland’s history and our beloved Sagas, written at the time when there was no such thing as murder – merely killings. You killed someone and in turn his relatives killed you back. No big deal. No Viking Squad, no lawyers, no particular sentiments and certainly no attempts to conceal the act. One of the nation’s favourite characters from these ancient writings is Egill who first killed at the hardened age of four. The victim was one of his father’s workers and his father was upset seeing that good help was hard to come by even in the year 914. When admonished and asked why he did it the child replied that the man was so well positioned for a bludgeoning. This more often than not seems to be the motive or reason for modern Icelandic murders. Nothing ground shaking or earth shattering, just someone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So one might ask, why bother writing, much less reading, about fictional crime set in Iceland? Despite everything described above this is not a difficult question to answer. Iceland has everything needed as a background for interesting murders and out of the ordinary drama, mercifully something criminals have yet to discover. It is a small society unlike any other, with quirky characters looming at every corner. It has landscape that just begs for creepy occurrences and allows for endless ways of getting rid of bodies or evidence – not to mention the abundance of possible, unusual ways to murder someone. Also, although not acted upon Icelandic society is brimming with motives - an abundance of money is (past tense would be more proper now) circulating, love and sex are all around, an irresponsible or what-me-worry attitude is general as is the belief in ghosts the occult, and the close connection and relevance of the past invites vendettas and related revenge. So writing about crime in Iceland is a bit like fishing in uncharted waters – you throw out your net of text and can be lucky with your catch by capturing the imagination of the reader or you can be unlucky and your story seems pretentious and downright silly. Whatever the outcome one always recites an unconscious prayer in the hope that the criminals don’t catch on as in real life boring crime is preferable to the fascinating.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Yrsa - After reading your opinion that there is little in Iceland for an author to use as the seed of a crime novel, you are to be congratulated all the more for the extraordinary goings on in LAST RITUALS. You threw out your net of text and captured my imagination to the point that I still remember all too clearly some of those details.

    It Egill's parents didn't make certain that there were never any more men in a perfect position for bludgeoning when their little boy was around, Iceland would have had the distinction of having the first serial killer in recorded history. He was a clever little guy. He made it seem perfectly reasonable that if a man is tying his shoe, he should expect to be hit with a club.

    People who are truly evil killers often seem so terribly ordinary when they are discovered. That's what makes them really frightening.


  2. How about having a (cleared) suspect go on a revenge hunt after being held in solitary for some other crime? He missed his daughter's college graduation/she missed an important business meeting/he's claustrophobic.... If it was more than a couple hours I know *I* would be pretty angry at being held! Sandra

  3. Fantastic look at Iceland's flaws and charms. Would that we all lived in such a near-murder-free society.

    And I second Beth's congratulations on pulling murder from such a setting. Your book is my May challenge book--waiting on my blog and on my bookshelf. Excited to pick it up!


  4. What a fascinating cultural chasm between your country and mine! Glad to have found this blog and excited to look for your work.

  5. I certainly learned about Iceland in a way the "History"books wouldn't be able to explain..From your Experiences and your Love..That certainly came through..I read "Out Stealing Horses" Per Petterson a few months ago,and in very similar tone and direct,yet suble undertones He was able to tell a wonderful story,about Norway..His country..with such passion.Like you have.I look forward to discovering your Books Yrsa...Best Susan Vtc...