Icelandic Crime Writers: a Wave of Fictional Murders Overwhelms a Small Peaceful Country

Books by Icelandic authors: photo by Michael Ridpath author of the Magnus Iceland Mysteries
When I started writing crime novels in Iceland, I assumed I would have the country entirely to myself. Idiot. It turns out that plenty of Icelandic writers were thinking the same thing at the same time.

There are now an extraordinarily high number of extremely good crime writers in Iceland; why this is so would make a good subject for another blog post. Here is a brief survey of them, starting with the big four who have been published widely abroad, and have reached bestseller lists all over the world.

A caveat. I haven’t read all of the books of all of these authors. And I am friends with a number of them.

Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur’s detective, Erlendur, is a policeman of the old school. He yearns for the farm of his childhood in the east of Iceland and he enjoys a sheep’s head for lunch. Arnaldur’s books examine the conflict between the old and the new in Iceland’s society, as well as solving some fascinating crimes. Silence of the Grave, about the discovery of bones dating from the Second World War, won the British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2005, so I have no excuse for my assumption that I would have the country to myself. I’m not sure whether that is my favourite or Tainted Blood, also known as Jar City, a novel about genetic research, which was made into a film.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Yrsa’s first crime novel translated into English was Last Rituals, featuring a young, disorganized lawyer, Thóra. She followed up with several more Thóra books, and then another series featuring the child psychologist Freyja, as well as a few suspense novels. Yrsa is not afraid of ghosts, or at least writing about them. Her wonderful, wry sense of humour creeps into her books in the most unlikely places, leavening her darker subject matter. I Remember You is deeply unsettling. I think my favourite is The Legacy, one of the Freyja series.

Ragnar Jónasson

Ragnar was obsessed with Agatha Christie as a child and started translating her novels into Icelandic at the age of nineteen. He loves the concept of the locked room mystery: often his characters are stuck in a snowed-in town, or an isolated island, or a hut in a blizzard. His first series featured the naïve detective Ari Thór. His more recent series is about Hulda, a detective coming up to retirement. I would recommend Outside, a fiendishly clever story about a group of friends stuck in a snowstorm in a mountain hut.

Lilja Sigurdardóttir

Lilja has written three novels about Sonja, a desperate single mother driven to drug smuggling: Snare, Trap and Cage, and a political thriller, Betrayal. Sonja’s problems include her lesbian love life, her bankster ex-husband and assorted unpleasant types. Original and absorbing, Lilja’s books have won worldwide acclaim. The French, in particular, seem to like them. She has embarked on a new series which ostensibly features her Anglo-Icelandic heroine, Árora, but I like to think is actually about her nice British accountant friend, Michael.

Quentin Bates

Quentin’s detective is Gunnhildur a no-nonsense detective with a complicated family. Although English like me, Quentin knows much more than me about Iceland: his wife is Icelandic and he spent many years working on Icelandic trawlers. He depicts the chaos of Icelandic life: the messy family structures of half-brothers and step-sisters and he is good on the criminals, especially of the hapless variety.

There are plenty of other excellent authors to choose from.

I have not yet read any of Eva Björg Aegisdóttir’s books, but her debut, Creak on the Stairs, won the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger and I hear her novels are very good.

Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson’s The Flatey Enigma is set in 1960 on the tiny island of Flatey, home of the famous saga collection the Flateyjarbók. It’s a murder mystery with a literary puzzle included. A different flavour from the other crime novels on this list. His day job is to write the traffic signs in Iceland.

I have also read excellent books by Árni Thórarinsson (set in Akureyri in the north), Solveig Pálsdóttir and Jónína Leósdóttir (who have both featured in guest posts on this blog) and Óskar Gudmundsson.

Credit should go to two publishers – Orenda Books and Corylus Books – who have brought most of these authors to the English-speaking world and to Quentin Bates for translating many of them into English so well. I am impressed at how he manages to convey the very different voices of each writer.

If you would like to read some novels about crime in Iceland, there is plenty to choose from here.

In my next post, I will talk about my own crime novels. They are different from these. Not better, not worse, just different.

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