Posts

Hekla and Katla: Rearranging Iceland over the Centuries

Image
  There have been about thirty volcanoes active in Iceland since the Norse settlers arrived.  The island was created only twenty million years ago. It stands on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of mostly underwater mountains created by volcanic activity as the European and North American continental plates rip apart from each other. In Iceland, the volcanoes reach the surface, where they simmer, bubble and occasionally explode. Let me introduce you to some of them. We have already met Snaefellsjökull , the prettiest of them all with its almost perfect cone and its topping of ice, that hovers above Snaefellsnes. It is taking a nap at the moment - the last time it erupted was about AD 200. Hekla: Iceland's busiest volcano We have also met the most active, Hekla. This is sited just to the north of Eyjafjallajökull, and can be clearly seen from sixty miles away. It is nearly classically volcano-shaped - a cone with hunched shoulders - but the summit is actually a line of craters covered

Eyja-something-or-other: The Volcano that Stopped the World

Image
  One evening in April 2010 I was on my way to an event in a library in Chiswick in West London to talk about Where the Shadows Lie , which had just been published. I was a little early, so I wandered through a park, running over the talk in my head.  I was at that awkward moment in the book cycle where I had three books in my head: the book I was promoting ( Where the Shadows Lie ), the book I was writing ( 66 Degrees North ) and the book I was going to write next (?, Magnus III?, Help!). I was searching for a topic for the next one. Like The Lord of the Rings and the financial crash, I wanted it to be something relevant to Iceland, but also of worldwide importance. My phone rang. It was my wife, Barbara. She was in Beijing and had just been told that her flight back to Britain was cancelled because of a volcano in Iceland. This was the beginning of a fraught week for Barbara, who, after a few days hanging around in Beijing, returned to London via New York, Madrid, Saint-Malo and Por

Favourite Places – Hótel Búdir

Image
  The Hótel Búdir is my favourite place in Iceland. It stands next to its black church alone, halfway along the south coast of Snaefellsnes. It is a spectacular location. To the north rises the wall of mountains that runs along the spine of the peninsula, spouting long white streams of waterfalls. To the east, a golden beach stretches for several kilometres along which horses gallop beside the blue waters of Faxaflói Bay. To the south, the Black Church perches on a low ridge. Looking to the west, you gaze over a treacherous lava field surrounding a raised crater, and beyond that the breathtaking Snaefellsjökull. The hotel bar is cosy, with a telescope to examine local eagles. The food is excellent - lamb, fish, seafood, samphire - and the dining room faces west towards the volcano. Sunset takes its time in Iceland, and you can spend the whole meal watching the light on Snaefellsjökull turn from yellow to pink to red, until finally, once the sun has disappeared benea

Ghosts

Image
  The Icelandic countryside teems with folk stories. Every village or even farm has one, and they don’t just concern elves. We have heard about the trolls, but there are also sea monsters, seals, serpents, polar bears and sorcerers, as well as assorted goody-goody pastors and saints. There are also ghosts and ‘seers’. Most towns still have their seers, or fortune-tellers, and many people will explain that one of their extended family has the gift. The country is also teeming with ghosts.  In general, these are more benign than British ghosts. Like the hidden people, they will offer helpful advice rather than scare the living daylights out of you.  One Icelander told me how a relative was able to communicate with her dead grandmother, who occasionally warned her of impending disaster. This relative was reluctant to admit her ability to anyone; she wasn’t an attention-seeker, and it raised all kinds of problems. What should she do with the information her grandmother gave her? Wouldn’t p

Black Fuel: Guest Post from Quentin Bates

Image
Every now and then I intend to slip in a guest post from someone who knows Iceland or Icelandic crime writing. My first victim is Quentin Bates.  Like me, Quentin is an Englishman who writes crime novels set in Iceland.  He has also translated a number of the top Icelandic crime writers into English, including Lilja Sigurdardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, Solveig Pálsdóttir and Óskar Gudmundsson.  He knows Iceland much better than I do .  He has worked on an Icelandic trawler, lived in the country and married an Icelander.  I recommend his series featuring Sergeant Gunhildur, the first book of which is Frozen Out .  Here he discusses the vital importance of coffee to the Icelanders.   There’s a black fluid that keeps the Nordic countries functioning. I don’t mean the stuff that’s pumped out of the depths of the North Sea by bearded roustabouts, but that other black liquid that’s the staple cliché of every Nordic crime drama. Wallander more or less set the pace, functioning on a diet of coffee

Elf Deniers vs Elf Believers

Image
  There are certain problems with writing about elves.  I’m not the kind of guy who believes in them. I write about a tough Boston homicide cop: could Magnus really believe in elves? There are no elves in Raymond Chandler’s books, nor in Agatha Christie or even Ian Rankin.  And what about the elf-deniers? These are modern, sophisticated Icelanders who resent the stereotype that their countrymen are gullible hicks who believe in fairies. They claim that those who say they believe in elves are just lying. There is a lot of elf-related tourist tat in Reykjavík gift shops, and while I have never attended the famous elf school, it does sound a little like a tourist trap to me. So I was nervous: was the whole country winding me up about elves? I wouldn’t put it past them. But I couldn’t write about Iceland honestly and avoid the subject entirely. It was a problem. Many Icelanders do take elf dwellings seriously. The Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir , is also a civil engineer. She writes

Elves

Image
  What about the elves? I had written two full-length novels set in Iceland, and it was becoming clear that there was a question I could no longer dodge. What was I going to do about the elves? I have related how I first heard about them, from Helga at that dinner during my book tour to Reykjavík . Naturally, I was intrigued, and when I met Icelanders in London during my initial research, I would casually ask them about the elves, or the ‘hidden people’ as they are often known. They always took my question seriously. One woman told me that her name had been chosen by a hidden woman, who had whispered it to her grandmother when she was born. You can see from the preceding posts that elves, ghosts and trolls are important in Iceland, even today. My editor was keen that I should include superstition and myth in my books. So I needed to write about elves. The Icelandic Embassy I made an appointment to see Gudjón, a senior diplomat at the Icelandic embassy , and his colleague Ágústa. They