Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge – for several years now Scandinavian crime shows have built up a huge cult of followers in the English-speaking world. Some of us, it seems, can’t watch anything unless it has subtitles and characters with really long names. The latest icicle-clad Nordic programme to gain converts is Trapped, set in a remote Icelandic costal town.
Europe’s most sparsely populated country seems an unlikely source of such a polished production, but the writing and direction are spot-on as each episode brings new plot twists and cranks up the tension – usually with a cliffhanger ending.
Trouble is heaped on the broad shoulders of local police chief Andri Olafsson from the off. Just as a huge Danish ferry comes into port, a male torso is found in the fjord. It would be great if the experts over in Reykjavik could jump on a plane and come over to assist, but the town’s hit by the worst snowstorm in decades, cutting off land, sea and air links. To whom does the torso belong, why is the ferry captain so shifty, and is it any coincidence that a young man implicated in an arson death years earlier was on that ferry?
Those who are hooked will know there’s plenty more to it – such as political corruption and people trafficking. If you’ve been bitten by the Trapped bug, as well as pondering whodunit, you might also be wondering what other Icelandic crime fiction you should try.
On screen, your next stop has to be the 2006 film Jar City. Like Trapped, it was directed by Baltasar Kromakur. Detective Erlendur is investigating the murder of an elderly man in his ramshackle flat. A cryptic note and the photo of a young girl are found on his body and Erlendur discovers a link to an unsolved rape decades earlier.
In many ways Jar City is quintessential Nordic noir. It’s got the introspective and methodical detective, a minimalist tone and bleak atmosphere, the cold and unforgiving climate, as well as the famously rugged landscapes. More than that, one of its key themes is genetic disorders – quite a worry in the Nordic nations where populations are quite small.
Top Icelandic authors
The film was based a book by Iceland’s finest crime author, Arnaldur Indridason. Jar City is the earliest of his Erlendur novels to have been translated into English, and is also the most popular. It’s a great read, but for some beautifully melancholic writing the final book in the series, Strange Shores, is the finest. Two ‘young Erlendur’ novels have also appeared – Reykjavik Nights and Oblivion.
If Indridason is Iceland’s king of crime, the queen is surely Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Her writing is a shade brighter, lighter and more contemporary, and she weaves a mighty fine mystery too. Try My Soul To Take, the second in her Thora Gudmundsdottir series, in which accidental sleuth Thora helps solve a present day murder that might just be linked to the death of a young girl a generation prior.
The new kid on the Icelandic noir scene is Ragnar Jonasson. His first book, Snowblind, is worth grabbing. It’s set in Siglufordur – a real-life isolated Icelandic town and, co-incidentally, the location where Trapped was filmed. Jonasson’s detective Ari Thor Arason is a young cop who finds himself up to his neck in mayhem when a woman is found bleeding and unconscious in the snow, and a local playwright falls to his death. As in Trapped, the town is cut off by the blizzard conditions.
Iceland’s Viking heritage goes back 1,000 years and forms something of a theme in The Flatey Enigma – an excellent read from Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. It was translated under the AmazonCrossing programme and sees magistrate’s clerk Kjartan looking into the death of a Danish cryptographer on an Icelandic island. The victim was trying to trace an ancient Norse manuscript called the Book of Flatey, full of legend and symbols, and linked to secret societies.
Iceland as a setting
There are a number of non-Icelandic authors who have fallen in love with the country and used it as a setting in their not-too-shabby books as well. The best known of them is probably Michael Ridpath, whose Fire & Ice series follows the exploits of Magnus Jonsson, a Boston detective seconded to Reykjavik.
Quentin Bates is another British author who really understands Iceland, having lived there for 17 years and put down roots. He’s back in the UK now but is still writing mysteries for Gunnhildur Gisladottir to solve. Try Chilled to the Bone, or his new one Thin Ice. Then there’s Kiwi Grant Nicol, whose work is more in the hardboiled vein. His novella The Mistake is 100 pages of icy menace and well worth your time.
And if you’re really keen…
To get a real flavour for Iceland and its growing reputation as a source of Nordic noir, the answer is to visit the country. Yes, for the true devotee, there’s the Iceland Noir crime fiction festival in November. It celebrates the gamut of Scandinavian crime fiction and in addition to authors such as most of the ones mentioned above, this year’s big names include Val McDermid, Leena Lehtolainen (Finland), Viveca Sten (Sweden) and Sara Blædel (Denmark).
As well as panel discussions, walking tours and plenty of opportunities to sample local delicacies such as puffin and whale meat, you’ll get the chance to see the Northern Lights and to go on a journey to Siglufordur with author Ragnar Jonasson to enjoy the isolated setting and visit the crime scenes.