Arnaldur Indridason is a shining light in the pantheon of respected Scandi-crime writers having won the CWA Gold Dagger Award and the Nordic Glass Key. His Detective Erlendur series began with with Jar City being the first of his books to be translated into English.
We caught up with Arnaldur to ask him some questions about his new book Strange Shores, Iceland and what makes a great detective!
Arnaldur, please tell us about your new book Strange Shores.
It’s a story about Erlendur setting out to face his past. He sets up camp at his farm where he lived as a child, in the East Fjords. It’s where the crucial experience of his life took place, when his brother disappeared, and he makes a sort of last-ditch effort to find out what happened to him. During that process he learns about another disappearance in the same area during World War II, when a young woman vanished from her home and was never seen again. That story is intertwined with a true story of British soldiers who were stationed nearby, as part of the British occupation of Iceland during the war. A group of men were caught in an appalling storm in the mountains, which cost some of them their lives. So I aim to bring together fiction and fact, and interweave it with Erlendur’s life and sorrows.
As the last book to feature Detective Erlendur has it been hard to say goodbye?
Well, I’m not sure I’ve said goodbye. Readers of Strange Shores are not quite certain what to make of the ending regarding Erlendur, and I’m quite happy to leave them in the dark! When you next read about Erlendur, he’s a young policeman in Reykjavík and the year is 1974. So after Strange Shores I look back in time, to see Erlendur as a young man, starting out as a detective. So in a sense I’m getting to know him in a different way, which is quite exciting. In many of my books I’ve looked back to the past, and dealt with events that took place many years before. Now I want to go all the way, and tell some stories of Erlendur as a young man. I don’t know how many there will be, but for me, as a writer, it’s been highly enjoyable to go back in time with Erlendur, to a time when there was no Internet, and no mobile phones – even colour TV was a novelty. It’s a way of life that’s completely disappeared.
Did the character develop as you would expect over the series or has Erlendur ended up in a different place to that you originally imagined for him?
I hadn’t given any thought to Erlendur’s backstory when I started writing about him, but before long I wanted to delve a little deeper into his personality than is usually the case with a series of crime novels about the same detective. I wanted to explore why Erlendur is such a morose loner, isolated and moody. In that way the story of Erlendur developed, and that is manifested in his interest in missing persons, his painful relationships with his family, his interaction with colleagues, and not least the bond he establishes with victims of crime and his empathy with those who have lost someone. He is more familiar than most people with those feelings, and he tends to have more interest in the bereaved than in the victims themselves.
Did you enjoy writing a series?
Very much. Erlendur has been part of my life since 1995 or so (the first book about him was published in Iceland in 1997), and it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable time. He is admittedly a hard character to be around, but I’ve always found him interesting, and enjoyed telling stories about him. When you write a series, year after year, it mustn’t become a routine. You have to be careful not to repeat yourself, and say the same things over and over again. You have to assemble the fragments with care, so that each book opens a new door into the characters, and make sure to maintain the reader’s interest in them. That is perhaps the most difficult part of writing a series like the Erlendur books – not to repeat myself, and always to offer something new, some new angle. And each book must also be able to stand alone, although they are each part of the longer narrative – so that the reader doesn’t have to read the whole series in order to grasp what’s happening.
What do you think makes a good detective in fiction?
Character. I’ve often said that if the reader is indifferent to the characters in the story, or is not much interested, there’s no point telling the story. I’ve always placed great emphasis on character, giving myself plenty of time to develop it – much more time than I spend on the actual plot, or building up suspense. Often I will have said all I want to say in the story, even though I haven’t tied up all the loose ends in the plot. So the plot isn’t necessarily the most important thing on my mind when I start writing – but the characters who will inhabit it.
How much does the landscape of Iceland influence the narrative of your books?
I don’t give it very much thought, except when it’s vital to the story, as in Strange Shores. In this story it plays a major role, but otherwise most of the stories are set in Reykjavík. The weather probably has a bigger place in the books than the landscape as such. In Iceland the summers are short and the winters long, and we often have severe weather. I certainly hope that is reflected in my books.
Do you plan out your plots in advance or wait and see where the characters take you?
No, I rarely do so. In general, I don’t know how a book is going to end, and that’s the way I like it, because I want to experience the suspense and anticipation in the same way as my readers, as the story develops. I’ve been known to take myself by surprise, as I sit at my computer, when I suddenly realise something interesting that I didn’t know when I started writing. One of the most enjoyable things about being a writer is surprising oneself. It happens now and then, and I hope I will succeed in letting it continue to happen in the future.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Recently I’ve been trying to play golf, but I’m terribly bad at it. I play indoor football and I’m a follower of the English Premier League. I’ve been an Arsenal supporter since 1970.
What book are you currently reading?
A book of Icelandic poems by Johann Sigurdsson, and another one by Magnus Sigurdsson – no relation. I love poetry, and I think every crime writer should read at least one poem a day. Also I’m reading one of the Icelandic Sagas – the Saga of Grettir, about a great outlaw named Grettir from the time of the settlement of Iceland in the middle ages, who always seemed to get himself into more and more trouble.
And finally… what’s next for you?
All kinds of things, but as a rule I never talk about what I’m working on. I’m superstitious that way, and I don’t want to jinx things.
You can listen to an extract of Strange Shores on Sound Cloud.