Posts

Not quite Scandinavians: the Icelanders

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So, Magnus is an Icelander.  But what are Icelanders really like?   Now that is a dangerous question.  Dangerous because we are in the territory of playing with stereotypes.   The Problem with Stereotypes           I first came across the notion of stereotype at school studying history.  I think I had suggested that the first world war started because Germans liked invading people.  I was admonished, quite rightly, and told that ‘stereotypes’ had no place in history.  You couldn’t say that Italians were excitable, the French didn’t queue, the Americans were loud or that the Germans liked invading people.  It was bad history, it was often plain wrong and it was morally dubious.  All true.             And yet.  It is hard to suggest that the unification of Germany or even the origins of the first world war can be analysed without some understanding of the development of Prussian militarism.    I believe there are certain traits that are more prevalent in Iceland than elsewhere, and I thi

The Diplomat's Wife

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I am interrupting my Icelandic saga to tell you about my new novel which has just come out: The Diplomat's Wife .   It’s not about Magnus, or Iceland, it’s a stand-alone thriller.   It's part road trip around Cold War Europe and part pre-World War 2 spy thriller. For the last ten or so years, I have been alternating my Icelandic crime novels with thrillers on other subjects.   I find the change stimulating, and my publisher seems to like it too. A visit to Iceland provided an important spark for The Diplomat’s Wife.    I knew I wanted to write about the 1930s.   In my previous researches I had been amazed at how little education many of the daughters of the aristocracy received - a lot of them didn’t even go to school - and also by how young they were when they married.   I wanted to write a story about a highly intelligent, completely uneducated aristocrat, who married young and became involved in some kind of espionage.    I wanted to write about her from the perspective of h

Boghildur and Biggi: Icelandic names

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Which brings us to names.  The Icelanders have a unique approach to naming people.  It ranges from the simple Jón Jónsson, a boy’s name, to the more complicated Boghildur Dögg Skarphédinsdóttir, a snappy girl’s name.   The system works as follows.             Your ‘last name’ is your father’s name, plus ‘-son’ if you are a boy, and ‘-dóttir’ if you are a girl.  There is no surname in a conventional European or American sense.    So I would be Michael Andrewsson, since my father’s name was Andrew.  My sister would be Mary Andrewsdóttir.  My grandfathers’ names were Claude and Conrad, so my parents would be Andrew Claudesson and Elizabeth Conradsdóttir.    This seems noble is some ways: our parents are honoured and my sister and mother have names which respect their sex – there is something fundamentally illogical about the English name Jane Johnson, for example.  But our tight little family of four all end up with different last names, which can be a little weird when we try to check in

My Detective: Magnus or Magnús

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I described the beginnings of a plot for my first Icelandic crime novel in an earlier post: The Problem .  What if Tolkien had been inspired by an Icelandic saga?  He probably had been inspired by an Icelandic saga.  So what if he had been inspired by a lost Icelandic saga that someone had found?  And that someone had been murdered.  And my detective had to sort it out. Now I needed a detective. Inventing a detective Creating your detective is probably the most important step for any writer when beginning a crime series.  You want the man or woman to be interesting to you as much as the reader.  You want him (I decided on a man, perhaps because I am a man) to be sympathetic, strong, independent, intelligent.    But to create drama he needs flaws: traits that will get him into trouble.  He needs personal problems.  He needs to be in conflict with family friends or colleagues.   Given these requirements, you can see how writers have created detectives who are middle-aged, divorced, with

The Icelandic language

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I have tried hard to learn Icelandic, I really have.  For two stints of several months each, I spent three-quarters of an hour every morning listening to audio files and reading grammar and teach-yourself books. I'm currently several months in to a lockdown-inspired third attempt.   At first it seemed easy.  Many words, especially the simpler ones, are close to English.  For example, sokkur is sock, takk is thanks and blár is blue. Easy, right?    Wrong.  The grammar is a killer .  Everything has to agree with everything else.  There are cases, moods, tenses, genders.  It’s like Latin, but more complicated.  And the natives really care if you get it right.  For example, the words for the first four numbers are significantly different depending on the gender of the thing you are counting.  In French you only need five words to count to four: un, une, deux, trois, quatre.  In Icelandic you need twelve: einn, ein, eitt, tveir, tvaer, tvö, thrír, thrjár, thrjú, fjórir, fjórar, fjögur

Favourite Places - Thingvellir

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Thingvellir is one of my favourite places in Iceland.   Thingvellir , or ‘Thing Valley’ is one of those rare places in the world: it is steeped in history, it is geologically extraordinary and its beauty takes your breath away.             It is about forty kilometres to the east of Reykjavík.  Once you escape the city’s suburbs you turn inland and drive through dramatic, desolate mountains.    You descend to the entrance of what is now a national park, and after a kilometre or so stop your car at the floor of a green valley.  To the east rise rough foothills, to the west a dramatic cliff face of grizzled grey rock.  A clear stream runs through the valley past a church to a sizeable lake, Thingvallavatn.   Small wooden bridges span the river.  Stop on one of these and stare into the stream into deep pools of clear water whose colour changes and shifts depending on the sky, the clouds and the angle of the sun.  A host of native Icelandic plants line the pools: birch, willow, crowberries

Clinging on the edge of Europe: Iceland's history 1264-1976

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In my last post, I talked about how Iceland came to have a system of government with no actual ruler, but a parliament of the chieftains, known as the Althing.  This lasted until the late thirteenth century, when there were a series of armed clashes between the chieftains , ending with an appeal in 1264 to the King of Norway to take charge and sort things out.  This turned out to be not such a good idea in the long term. The plan was for the Althing to maintain its authority, but over time the power of the Norwegian king in Iceland’s affairs grew. Then, in a bewildering session of a medieval version of the board game Risk, Norway and Sweden united with Denmark. The Danes ended up being in charge, and over the following centuries they established a monopoly of trade with Iceland. Iceland became a very poor country, one of the poorest in Europe. Tough, cold conditions At this time also, Europe was in the throes of the mini-ice age. The climate was becoming colder, which can’t have helpe