Time to go: researching Reykjavík

Hallgrímskirkja church in downtown Reykjavík. Photo by Michael Ridpath, author of the Magnus series of crime novels.
In my last post, I described my arduous research trips to places like Rio and South Africa.  But now, for better or worse, I had decided to write several books in a city with appalling weather: Reykjavík. I have looked back at my notes on this trip in May of 2008, and these were my rather disjointed first impressions.

First Impressions

"It’s small and northern. Despite the cloud, there is a feeling of lightness about the place. Most of Reykjavík is in shades of grey, many of them light grey, brightened by a number of small houses with brightly coloured metal roofs. 

It’s a hip, fashion-conscious city, yet innocent at the same time, clean, easy to walk around. Although many streets are narrow, you can usually see some distance to the sea and mountains, so it doesn’t feel cramped. It’s friendly in rather a repressed way. 

The air is fresh and cool, with an occasional hint of sulphur. There is not much smell of traffic. The main sounds are the hum, not the roar, of traffic, the laugh or yelp of a human, the muffled bass line coming out of a car or bar, the clank of construction equipment and the occasional cry of a seabird. 

The sky changes constantly as clouds mix and merge with the sun, performing a kind of bridal dance; you catch glimpses of lighter grey and sometimes bright blue. It rains and then it stops. The few trees are short, unhappy and just budding. A few stubby daffodils are still blooming in May. The temperature is cool: eight degrees, and at this time of year it doesn’t get dark until 10.30pm.

Movement and details. 

Steam rising from a road junction — perhaps a leak in the underground geothermal heating system? A bright yellow Mustang convertible. A girl wobbling on a bike wearing a lime green top, a leopard-skin skirt and a tail. A man pushing a baby round and round the city — I saw him several times. Two doughty tourists walking through the main shopping street in hiking gear. A class of kids in the Parliament Square, all with blonde hair apart from one East Asian girl."

What are the smells of Reykjavík? There is an impression of cleanliness, although I’m told the pollution from cars is worse than a visitor might assume. When the wind is from the harbour, you can smell fish. And when the wind is from the south-east, you can smell sulphur, leaking out from the centre of the earth at the geothermal power station thirty kilometres away.


I needed symbols of Reykjavík, and there were two obvious candidates, both of which have recurred frequently in my novels. 

The first is Mount Esja. This is a large, long, muscular ridge of crenellated rock and snow that lies to the north of Reykjavík, on the other side of a smooth grey fjord dotted with islands. You can see glimpses of it from many places in town. It changes constantly, with the seasons, the weather and even the time of day. 

Mount Esja, Reykjavik by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Murder Mysteries

It can glow pink, glisten yellow, gleam white and brood black. On some days its grey wrinkles can be clearly made out in the sunshine under a blue sky. Tiny clouds can hover just above the flat summit, larger cumulus plunge and soar above it, or heavy grey blankets of moisture bear down, leaving only the foothills showing. It can look beautiful or ominous, or sometimes both at once. It has become an old friend, a friend with ever-changing moods.

The second is the Hallgrímskirkja, or Hallgrímur’s church (see the image at the top of this post). A hill rises above the centre of Reykjavík, and on top of this hill stands the Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. Despite its size, it’s not a cathedral: that is an older, much smaller building near the parliament square. Inside, it’s very warm, unlike any English church I have ever been to. 

From the top of its spire you get a marvellous view over Reykjavík, the sea that surrounds the city on three sides, and beyond that, the mountains. But it's not the view from it that is important, it’s the view of it.

The church was designed in the 1930s and built between 1945 and 1986. It is constructed out of smooth concrete. The spire, supported by swept-back wings, swoops upwards to dominate the town. You see it from afar as you approach Reykjavík, and you see it as you walk the streets downtown. It can glow soft and yellow in low evening light, or loom grey and brutal in the drizzle. It has a kind of smooth grace to it, but its also austere, depending on how you are feeling. Some of my characters think it looks like an intercontinental ballistic missile. Some of them think it looks like a space rocket. One of them thinks it looks like a penis.  


I identified a number of distinct ‘types’ among the people I saw on that first trip. I wouldn’t say that this is a definitive taxonomy of Icelanders at all, merely a snapshot of some of those I saw in 2008, and I fear some of my descriptions are not very kind.

"Old guys who think of themselves as cool: long greying curly hair, bushy beard or raffish moustaches, leather jacket, broad-rimmed hat and a scarf tied just so. Big guys, square shoulders, blonde, with stubble on their cheeks and stubble on their scalps, wearing black leather jackets. Thin guys with straggly red hair and thin straggly facial hair, woolly hats and jeans that sag and straggle. Big, broad, pasty-faced men, with thin fair hair, acne, a paunch and a couple of breasts. Little neat bird-like men with thick silver hair brushed back Soviet-style, weather-beaten faces and bright blue twinkling eyes. Young men wearing T-shirts under expensive sweaters, jeans, leather shoes, thick fair hair brushed back and oiled, neat designer stubble and thin metal glasses.

Tall, long-limbed women with blonde hair, fair complexion, blue eyes, white smile, striding with an air of confidence but not unapproachable. Thin small women with pale skin, blue eyes and black hair. What look like farm girls: hefty, broad pasty-face, bad skin, upturned piggy nose, looking unsophisticated and innocent. Middle-aged women with black hair, bright lipstick, mascara and leather trousers. Thin middle-aged woman with red collar-length hair, glasses, pale slightly freckled skin and blue intelligent eyes."

A failed night on the town

After a full afternoon of muttering into my tape recorder, I headed to my hotel. The Leifur Eiríksson is situated at the top of the hill right opposite the Hallgrímskirkja. Between the hotel and the church stands a fine statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the son of Erik the Red of Greenland fame, who sailed from Greenland to discover America. He is clutching a battleaxe and striding westwards across the city beneath him towards Canada. 

My room had a fine view of Leif. I diligently wrote up my notes of the day’s sightings and then set out for a night on the town. Reykjavík is famous for its raucous nightlife, it was Saturday, and I needed to do my research. I found a bar, ordered a burger, and drank a beer. Quickly. I ordered another one. 

The bar was barely a quarter full. It was eight-thirty. I had another beer. It had been a large burger. The beer was yellow and gassy. My stomach was full and I was tired. And the bar was still three-quarters empty. 

Sometimes I really enjoy a long slow pint in a bar by myself. Sometimes I just get impatient. This was one of those impatient evenings. At nine-thirty I concluded that the stuff about Reykjavík nightlife I had read was overblown hype. At nine-forty-five I left the bar and looked for somewhere else more lively. The streets were more or less empty, although there was a parade of fancy cars on the main shopping street, Laugavegur.

I gave up and went to bed.

The curtains were thin, and it was not yet dark, so it took me a while to go to sleep. I was woken at about midnight by laughter and shouting. For the next three or four hours the clamour rose, until it sounded as if there was a riot going on not far from my hotel. I knew I should have got up and checked it all out. But I was feeling tired, foolish and a little middle-aged. I read a book for half an hour and eventually went back to sleep. 

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  1. Wonderfully evocative, Michael -- just like all your books! This made me feel like I was walking Reykjavík's streets with you , and nodding in silent agreement about the Icelanders we saw! Thank you for this!

    1. You are welcome, Dave. You never know if what you see is what everyone else sees . . . if you see what I mean.


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