Nordic noir: The best of Icelandic fiction

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Nordic Noir may not have the all-pervasive influence over British readers and TV viewers it did a couple of years ago, but it is still is responsible for tens of thousands of sales every year.

Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, and Stieg Larsson are all names you’ll be familiar with; some of you will have read their work. They are by far and away the leading lights of the genre and are undoubtedly responsible for its massive growth in recent years, but amongst them lies an unsung hero. His name? Arnaldur Indriðason.

Indriðason is the creator of the dark, brooding Detective Erlendur. A crossover between the Iceland of old (he’s likely to be found eating a meal of goat’s head and mash) and the more modern, cosmopolitan holiday destination, Erlendur is very much cut in the mould of Inspector Morse. He is a quiet and unassuming man who cuts an isolated figure in a rather disturbing world of crime. Much like Morse he is dogged and tenacious, but it is his fascination with old cases and missing people that defines Indriðason’s whole series, numbering 12 texts in all. Such a fascination is carefully formed around Erlendur’s formative experiences, most clearly the death of his brother and the debilitating effect it had on his family.

Despite smoking like a chimney and having deserted his children whilst they were young, you cannot help but empathise with Erlendur. Indriðason’s vivid descriptions portray him as a lonely man, desperately in need of a warm embrace.

Yet it was not the relatable, alluring nature of his foremost literary creation that drew me in the most when I first stumbled upon Indriðason’s work three years ago. Having visited the country myself earlier in the year and remaining fascinated by its uniqueness to this day, I found a copy of Reykjavík Nights, one of Indriðason’s most recent works in a discount store. I took it, but forgot about it for a couple of months. Then one day when looking for something to read, it was there.

I’m not going to indulge myself or bore you with the clichés of it being a “page-turner,” or that once I started reading “it was impossible to put down.” I read a few chapters now and then, when a spare half an hour arose, and I enjoyed it. So much so that I bought another two of his books. There began a cycle of reading his works and enjoying them more with every passing page, appreciating the complexity of Erlendur’s character and also Indriðason’s brilliant literary ability.

I digress. The real beauty of Indriðason’s work, what really drew me in, was its simplicity. There’s not the farfetched delving into gang warfare, nor is there some sadistic serial killer bumping off three or four people and the protagonist facing a race against time to stop them. Iceland has a population of merely 334,000, so a series of books with multiple murders would give you something akin to Midsomer, some police work intermingled with almost farcical crime levels. Indriðason plays into this demography in his books, with each just featuring one death.

These singular murders are always complex, but they all tie into the mentality of the Icelandic nation. Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe and Reykjavík, the capital, contains over a third of the country’s population. You can drive for hours and see little more than small villages, meaning Icelanders form incredibly tight-knit communities. They don’t like outsiders and by and large they don’t like change, meaning things often get dealt with by the communities themselves and remain buried. Therefore, Erlendur’s raking over past disappearances and crimes often sets the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons and it can often take months for him to tease out the truth, but that he does.

I’ve given Indriðason the hard sell and you have no excuse not to try him out. All of his works have been translated into English and it was his work Silence of the Grave that won the highest prize in UK crime fiction in 2005 (his victory actually prompted the CWA to ban translated entries, which says it all really). But where to start? Having not read the books in sequence myself, I would stress there is no need to. It is a series you can dive into at any point and then the more you read, the more the pieces come together.

Jar City is one of his best works and was turned into a film in 2006; a film I’d definitely recommend checking out if you can get subtitles, or if you speak fluent Icelandic, but my two recommendations would be Draining Lake and Voices. The former takes a look at Iceland’s flirtations with Communism during the Cold War after a body is discovered in a rapidly emptying lake. The latter, my personal favourite of Indriðason’s works, sees Indriðason and his team investigate the death of a janitor in a busy Reykjavík hotel in the week before Christmas, only this janitor was a former child star.

Indriðason gets nowhere near the exposure or praise that his Scandinavian contemporaries find themselves lavished with, yet for my money he is just as good. His works are simple, accessible and engaging and a must for any fan of crime fiction. He has also set the tone for a future generation, with the exceptionally talented Ragnar Jónasson now beginning to emerge from the master’s shadow.



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