This month, a new literary prize named Svartfuglinn (The Auk) was launched in Iceland. The prize is intended for crime fiction by previously unpublished Icelandic authors. Its name is a reference to a 1929 novel by Gunnar Gunnarsson about a notorious 19th century double murder, making the novel one of the earliest examples of Icelandic crime fiction. The prize is founded and moderated by crime writers Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, author of the Thora Gudmundsdottir books and the ongoing Children’s House Series, as well as several other crime thrillers; and Ragnar Jónasson, author of the Dark Iceland Series which has seen a climactic rise internationally with four books published in the UK since 2015 and the fifth one forthcoming this November.
The two authors are themselves supplying the 500,000 ISK prize money. But the reward also includes a contract with Veröld, their Icelandic publisher, and with David H. Hedley, Ragnar’s UK agent, who was named as one of the 100 most influential people in British publishing in 2015 by trade magazine Bookseller.
“It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time,” says Ragnar. “My life today would be very different if I hadn’t taken the plunge and started writing. Our hope is that this prize will encourage others to do the same. I’m very excited to see if someone can surprise us. I truly think that we’ll be able to find new authors who can offer us something outside the norm.”
Having these author’s names attached to the prize has already garnered a lot of attention internationally. Already, the organizers of a UK based crime fiction festival have been in touch and asked if they can announce the winner and host him or her at their festival. However, a major incentive for Ragnar and Yrsa was giving something back to the Icelandic crime fiction readers. “We’re not really making any specific demands regarding the material, other than that the story is well written and exciting and holds the reader’s interest,” Yrsa says. “Ideally, we would like to find a new and original voice.”
“We also wanted to strengthen and spread awareness of Icelandic crime fiction because doing so helps secure the position of the Icelandic language,” says Ragnar. “The recent news of the significant drop in book sales in Iceland over the last decade is a matter of some concern, especially if it means that people are reading less. Possibly the market is simply changing and reading is moving into other venues, but I fear that it means that fewer people are reading in Icelandic.”
Well of ideas
Scandinavian crime fiction has seen a steady rise internationally after the unprecedented breakthrough of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series in 2005. But despite some sceptics referring to the genre as a “bubble,” Yrsa and Ragnar are both certain that Nordic Noir (as it is often called), still has a long life ahead of itself. “There is a bottomless well of ideas out there for authors to dip into,” says Ragnar, and Yrsa concurs. “Icelandic crime fiction in particular has only been around for a very short time,” she points out. “There are still so many things that haven’t been tried yet. Hopefully, this prize will show us some of those things.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.