One man and two women men walk into a bar: a banker, a priest and a detective


Priest behind altar Grafarvogur church photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries

I was still on the hunt for real-live Icelanders with which I could people my second Magnus novel.

The banker

I met Birna, a middle executive in one of the banks, who had lost all of her savings in the bank’s money-market fund, and then her job. In London I met Kristján, an Icelandic graduate student. Pétur told me about Icelandic writers. I was getting to know my characters.

Now we come back to the thorny issue of stereotypes. In the first draft of my very first financial thriller, I included a character who was the ‘muscle’ working for an American businessman. I called him Luigi, gave him thick dark hair and an overcoat. As one of my friends said, he was a cliché. So it’s all very well figuring out what a typical Icelandic fisherman, or student, or banker is like, but sometimes you need to make them different from the typical.

The priest

An example is Hákon, a rural priest in Where the Shadows Lie. I found myself an Icelandic priest, a woman named Sara, and she gave me a portrait of a typical cleric living in the countryside. He would be big, bearded, an amateur scholar, conservative, old-fashioned, possibly with responsibility for working the farm attached to his church. He would be interested in the devil and be willing to wield the appropriate prayers to get rid of him. Apparently, the devil is big in Lutheran theology, and fear of the devil is certainly a part of rural superstition.

The Reverend Sara and I discussed what atypical interests or hobbies the priest might have that would nevertheless make sense. We decided he liked heavy metal, especially Led Zeppelin. In the book, Hákon sits in his isolated vicarage by his lonely church in the dale at Hruni and cranks up ‘The Battle of Evermore’ to full volume. It works for me.

By the way, the photograph above is the wonderful altar in the modern church at Grafarvogur, a suburb of Reykjavík.

The detective

For me, my most interesting recurring character is Vigdís. She is Magnus’s sidekick, a detective constable in the Reykjavík Violent Crimes Unit. Sidekicks are common in detective fiction, from Sherlock Holmes’s friend Dr Watson onwards. They perform a useful function in a story: they are a foil for the detective to test out theories, they create conflict, they provide a different perspective, and they are an ingredient in possible subplots.

I wanted to make Vigdís a little different. I decided to make her the opposite of the classic image of a young Icelandic woman. I decided to make her black.

When I suggested this to Icelanders, they explained that there were very few female detectives in Iceland, and that there was no chance that there could ever be a black one. I took that as a challenge: I would invent one. Vigdís.

There are not many black people in Iceland. Some are recent immigrants: unlikely for a police officer. Some were adopted –  that was possible. But I decided it would be more interesting if Vigdís was the daughter of a black US serviceman at the Keflavík airbase and an Icelandic woman who worked there. That idea I liked.

I have never witnessed any racism in Iceland, and indeed the English-language journalism in the country is uniformly tolerant and encouraging of ethnic diversity. But a number of Icelanders have told me that some of their compatriots can be racist. This might be expected in a society as homogenous and isolated as Iceland’s. 

I remember working on a farm in Norway when I was eighteen and being surprised by the attitude towards black people of the very kind farmer’s wife. She had just never met one before. During the Second World War, the Icelandic Prime Minister Hermann Jónsson requested that the Americans refrain from sending any black servicemen to their airbase at Keflavík, a prohibition that persisted until 1972.

Vigdís never met her father, and so was brought up by her mother –  her last name, Audardóttir, references her mother Audur rather than her father. Her mother is an alcoholic, a depressingly common problem in Iceland. 

Vigdís has dark skin, but rather than embracing her blackness, she chooses to deny it. Strangers speak to her in English, assuming she is a foreigner, but she refuses to answer in that language. In fact, she refuses to speak it at all. She sees herself as an Icelander through and through, but her compatriots don’t always agree. The ambiguous attitude that she has to her Icelandic identity is something she and Magnus have in common. Her race causes her difficulties; I like difficulties in a novel.

I have identified a couple of mixed-race Icelanders with whom I could discuss Vigdís. Together we could talk about her character, change it, make Vigdís more like them. But I’m not going to do that. To me, Vigdís is a real character, and I’m not going to let anyone mess with her. Apart from me. Sometimes you just have to use your imagination.

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